“No man is an island” wrote John Donne, recognising, to put it very simply, that we are better together than alone. Right now, Australians are experiencing “island-ship” in multiple ways, because not only are we an island geographically, but also practically, given travel in and out is extremely limited. Moreover, many of us on the eastern seaboard are “islands” in the spiritual/emotional sense, since we are in lockdown and isolated from family and friends. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to write a post about islands, given, on the positive side, dreaming about islands has long conveyed a lovely sense of escape and peace.
These thoughts were inspired by a blog post link sent to me a few days ago by a friend and reader of my blog. It was on best books about islands in literature. Islands can be powerful places and metaphors (à la Donne) in literature, so I thought it would be interesting to look at some Aussie island-set books.
The “best books” bloggers name a few reasons islands make good subjects. For example, islands offer an opportunity to observe society in miniature, where you can “encounter communities at their most intense and intricate”. They also say that “islands are perfect settings for origin stories: places where characters can be formed before moving into the larger and often hostile world”.
They mention “fabulist” stories about islands, and stories about island summers (and the ensuing fun and freedom, presumably!) In children’s literature, “islands are playgrounds or places ripe for adventure”, but islands can also be the setting for “stark, survivalist fiction”. They name YA novel Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the world ends, but surely William Golding’s Lord of the flies is the most obvious example?
In a nutshell, I’d say that islands tend to function as either places of exile and isolation (forced or chosen) or places of escape (from problems elsewhere and/or to freedom.) These islands can be physical places and/or metaphorical ones.
Selected Aussie island-based books
- Thea Astley’s The multiple effects of rain shadow (1996) (my review): Set on Northern Queensland’s Palm Island, which was, in the late 1920s to 30s, used as a dumping ground for Indigenous Australians deemed to be “problems”, the novel is based on an historical event in which the white superintendent, grieving over at the recent death of his wife, runs amok, setting fire to buildings (including his own home in which his children were sleeping).
- Peggy Frew’s Islands (2019) (Bill’s review): Set on Phillip Island east of Melbourne, an island I have in fact visited and which, apparently has been important to a few generations of Frew’s family. For her, I understand, the island means freedom, however, in the novel, I suspect the island has a more complex role as being, also, a place of isolation.
- Ben Hobson’s Snake Island (2019) (Theresa’s review): Described as a literary thriller, this book is about a father’s sense of responsibility for a son who has behaved badly. Nothing I’ve read about it explains the “island” of the title. Anyone? It is set in rural Victoria so I’m guessing the title is symbolic or metaphorical, but I don’t know.
- Ion L. Idriess’ Isles of despair (1947) and The wild white man of Badu (1950): These two novels, set on islands in northern Australia, are historical fiction written by one of Australia’s most popular mid-twentieth century writers. Isles of despair, according to Wikipedia, is based on “the true story of Barbara Thomson, a white woman who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck and was raised by Coral Sea islanders, before being rescued in 1849″, while The wild white man of Badu is about two convicts who escape from Norfolk Island and end up on Torres Strait’s Badu Island.
- Heather Rose’s Bruny (2019) (my review): About Tasmania’s Bruny Island, this is trickier to classify in terms of traditional island literature, except that Bruny’s character as a place of beauty and escape is being threatened by development. It is a political novel, and Bruny is seen as the thin end of the wedge for Tasmania, and …
- Jock Serong’s The burning island (2020) (Lisa’s review): Another work of historical fiction, Serong’s novel is based on an actual shipwreck, the Britomart, which foundered in 1839 off Tasmania’s Preservation Island. In terms of our island theme, a review in The Sydney Morning Herald says that “Preservation Island’s community is depicted as an embattled refuge from the demands of religious evangelists and voracious government paternalism”, so, again, an isolated place, but one offering some hopes of freedom?
- ML Stedman’s The light between oceans (2012) (Janine’s review): This lighthouse-on-an-island novel was an international bestseller. I saw the movie, but haven’t read the book. It’s about a decision a couple makes which can be contained on an island (off Western Australia), but when they return to the mainland those decisions – those secrets – must face reality. Many bloggers reviewed this but I’ve chosen Janine’s because she confronts the island issue: “The setting in a lighthouse on an island is important too. Not only does the mechanics of the plot hang on the logistics of infrequent contact between the lighthouse and the mainland, but the emotional and ethical question at the heart of the book relies on isolation as well.”
- Randolph Stow’s To the islands (1958) (Kim’s review): An Australian classic set in northwest Australia that I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read. However, as far as I can tell, the “islands” in this book are “symbolic” or “metaphoric” in that, says Suzie Gibson in The Conversation, they represent “a world outside one’s knowledge and body” to which we should be looking.
- Adam Thompson’s Born into this (2021) (my review): Thompson is from the island of Tasmania, but many of his stories are set on islands off this island, and that’s why I’ve included it here. Some of the stories are about escape and isolation, some about caring for country, some about both – and more.
- Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island (2019) (Theresa’s review): An Australian book set on an island of the USA’s northeast coast, this novel seems to be a quintessential island novel about escape and sanctuary, physical and emotional.
And now, of course, over to you to tell us about your favourite island books, Aussie or otherwise.