Sunday, 18 December 2011

Islands and the Historical Imagination

Having grown up on a small island (Jersey), and lived there for almost half of my life, I have often had occasion to pause and reflect on what it is that makes island life “special” and “different,” what it is that gives islands a particular character. My book. Islands in Time ( was an attempt to explore these questions through archaeological evidence. The book focussed on a range of issues including the development of human communities in island ecosystems; the establishment of exchange networks linking islands with one another, and with adjacent mainlands; and the flourishing of unique monumental traditions in isolated communities. It was a fascinating exercise, but it always seemed to me that something was missing. That something, I now realise, was the emotional dimension of island life.

With the Autumn Term now finished, I have started on my holiday reading, discovering, in the process, three works of fiction which illuminate this dimension of island societies, rather as Italo Calvino shone a light on urban cultures with Invisible Cities.

From the Mouth of the Whale, by the Icelandic writer, Sjon (Telegram, 2011) is a work of “pure” historical fiction, set in 17th Century Iceland. Accused of sorcery and necromancy, the poet, naturalist and healer, Jónas Palmason, is exiled to the remote Gullbjorn’s Island. Ancient myths mingle with beautifully observed evocations of the natural world as Jónas struggles to save his family, dreams of leaving his island prison, and finally takes solace in nature as he comes to see the solitary life of the sandpiper as a metaphor for his own predicament.

Darrell Kastin’s The Undiscovered Island (University of Massachussetts Dartmouth, 2009) is set in the Azores, and begins with a mystery set in the present day. Julia Castro, a naturalised American, returns to the islands in search of her father, a local historian who has disappeared without trace. She is soon caught up in a surreal kaleidoscope of past and present; myth and reality; with tales of an enchanted island that appears periodically from the depths of the sea; ghostly sirens emerging from the mist; talking skulls; and threads of ancestry and tradition that bind the people of the present to the murderous intrigues of the royal courts of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Hy Brasil, by Margaret Elphinstone (Canongate, 2002) is set entirely in the present, and on an imaginary mid-Atlantic island. Sidony Redruth, a young Englishwoman, has been commissioned to write a tourist guide to the island. Her researches uncover a number of mysteries, behind which lie dark truths about the island’s recent past and the 20th Century revolution in which the island won its independence. Elphinstone has the political and social intrigues of a small island community spot-on (uncannily so for this reader) but she also draws on the connections between the present and the past, with modern institutions rooted in the Age of Piracy and the island’s identity forged in relation to its ever-shifting volcanic landscape.

The themes that unite these three books all relate to the nature of human communities in environments that are geographically (and perhaps also genetically) circumscribed: the ways in which this “boundedness” draws people into a closer relationship with the rocks, plants and animals that make up their miniature universe; and draws the present into a more intimate relationship with both the recent and the more distant past. Myth, likewise, enters into a more enduring compact with reality in a setting with fixed and tightly drawn boundaries.