Monday musings on Australian literature: Islands in Australian literature

“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”.

Randolph Stow, To the islands

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.

56 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Islands in Australian literature

  1. Thanks for the mention of my review. With Snake Island, there is a little island in the book, like a kind of estuary. I reviewed it when it first came out and I can’t remember exactly (there’s been a lot of books since then) but there was definitely a sort of island because it reminded me of where I grew up down in Victoria, in the South East Gippsland. We had these muddy estuaries along the border of my grandparent’s dairy farm.

  2. I wasn’t a fan of The Light beween the Oceans – Hist.Fic and all that, but also because there is no such island off the SW coast of WA.
    The ‘biggest’ island in Oz fiction I’d say was Fraser Island, eg A Fringe of Leaves. But having written that, Tasmania’s Island-ness comes up more often, starting with For the Term of his Natural Life.

    • Thanks Bill … darn it. I wondered about White and islands, and forgot about Fringe of leaves, which I haven’t read in fact. I decided I wouldn’t do Tasmania because – well because that would just be a big rabbit hole. But I have just realised that I should have included Heather Rose’s Bruny – and so I have!

      As for no such island off WA, who cares! It’s fiction! Haha.

  3. Only recently finished The Invisible Husband of Frick Island by Colleen Oakley, and the series The Red Door Inn, Where Two Hearts Meet and On Love’s Gentle Shore , by Liz Johnson. All have island settings, and the island community is important for providing support, or for providing rejection. All set on the east coast of USA.

    • Like Wolfe Island Neil? Have you read it?

      I haven’t heard of Colleen Oakley or Liz Johnson. Are these general fiction? Historical fiction? I love that you’ve described their “islandness”!

      • I’ve read Wolfe Island. I don’t really consider it an “island” story, in as much as the heroine is (initially) living on it alone, that is, without a loving or hating community.

        The Oakley and Johnson stories are general, or current rom coms. Not great literature, but easy reads. The Oakley has a touch of mystery about it. In all of them the island community provides goodies and baddies who help to drive the story along.

  4. Some good book suggestions here and I
    Liked musing about islands with this post- and like how you noted
    “places of exile and isolation (forced or chosen) or places of escape”

  5. There is also a lot of interesting nonfiction available about Island life. Environmental forces pose a major threat to island communities. A typhoon can denude an atoll of living vegetation and ruin all sources of groundwater. Volcanic and coralline Pacific Islands tend to possess beauty but few economic resources. Overseas lumber companies, many based in Asia, are buying up hardwoods stripped from rain forests throughout the southwest Pacific. For many in the pacific regio, political independence has not been accompanied by economic independence. Various Pacific states are working to promote informed, controlled tourism that doesn’t undermine indigenous cultures or tip the environmental balance. Mass tourism changes a place. Some governments think it is the only solution for economic prosperity. But it has consequences. Competition for land along with educational and economic opportunities push Islanders toward urban centers. Although some migration is circular, many migrants relocate permanently. The fascinating aspects of an island economy and social fabric are amazing.

  6. Classic children’s books (non Aust though) which I adored as a youngster): Enid Blyton’s ‘Five on Kirin Island’ (oh such freedom and jolly larks!) and LM Montgomery’s ‘Anne of the Island’ and all the Anne books actually, set on Canada’s Prince Edward Island. So many fond memories.

    • Thanks Denise. Actually I added it to my list in the middle of the night, but if you read my list in the email, you wouldn’t have seen it. I have seen the island from the mainland (of Tasmania!) but I haven’t been there yet.

  7. Hi Sue, my first thought went to Treasure Island, unfortunately not Australian. But then like Denis, Bruny for Australian novel. Another one is Tim Winton’s memoir, Island Home. Though my favourite is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

    • Thanks Meg. I actually added Bruny to my list in the middle of the night feeling I should not have forgotten that one. Winton is good, too, though, its a memoir of course which i wasn’t including here. I would like to read it one day, however. And yes, Woolf’s book is hard to go past re island books.

  8. There are several novels set on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, off Western Australia’s coast, in the aftermath of the Batavia’s shipwreck in 1629. Among my favourites are Kathryn Heyman’s ‘The Accomplice’ and Arabella Edge’s ‘The Company’. Both delve into the warped psyche of Jeronimus Cornelisz who established himself as the brutal leader of the survivors.

    • I love that you have your thinking hat on Carmel. It doesn’t have to have “island” in the title, so The savage crows (which I don’t know) is another addition!

      It did, though, have to be fiction – and I think Montebello is a memoir. I have that on my TBR, and would love to find time to read it.

  9. First, thanks for the link to my review. I appreciate it.

    Second, Snake Island is, indeed, a real place – down my neck of the woods (where I grew up) – in Corner Inlet, off Wilson’s Prom. The author is a Yarram boy (I used to work on the newspaper there in the mid-1990s), which is relatively close by. I’ve not read the book, so don’t know how much of a sense of place there is in the story, but it’s one I’m keen to read at some point.

    Third, I had no idea that Peggy Frew’s book is based on Phillip Island – that’s another place from my childhood but also a place I tend to visit every time I go back home to the see the parents because the fish n’chips in San Remo, the little town near the bridge to the island, are LEGENDARY.

    I can think of a few non-fiction books about islands – Tim Winton’s ‘Island Home: A Landscape Memoir’ and Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’.

    • Thanks kimbofo for clarifying Snake Island. Interesting that nothing I read made that clear. I wonder if it’s “islandness” is not a particularly strong feature of the book.

      And yes, Hooper. Tall man was among the first books I thought of, but off course I decided to focus on fiction. I’m glad you’ve mentioned it though.

  10. Wildlight, by Robyn Mundy is a terrific book set on Maatsuyker Island off the coast of Tasmania. There’s a teenage girl livid about being unable to phone her friends because it’s too remote, and the parents have f2f communication difficulties too, marooned on the island for four months as volunteers for wildlife.

    • Thanks Brona …

      and yes I nearly made that point about Australia, and Tasmania, but felt they are really too big too be part of an “island” literary trope, though Tasmania does have elements!

  11. I immediately think of Prince Edward Island and Anne of Green Gables, of course. I know there’s some popular historical fiction about Hawaii, but much like Bill, I’m not a fan of historical fiction. Would a place like Japan be too big to considered an island in the lens through which you’re looking at islands?

    I hadn’t thought before about how islands represent two contrasting situations: isolation and vacation. I tend to see more of the isolation trope because it’s great for horror movies.

    • Yes, Melanie, I’d generally see Japan, like mainland Australia and Tasmania, as being too big for the main island issues to play out. Japan though has many many little islands but I don’t know about novels about them. I’m sure there are.

      And yes, of course horror and islands – hence isolation – for you. I think isolation is the more common trope, but I remembered too late an Aussie novel – set in Japan actually – but called Tuvalu. No-one ever goes there, but as I recollect it represents freedom and escape for the protagonist (or his girlfriend). So long since I’ve read it.

  12. Coincidentally, I posted recently about having read about five different islands during this summer (unintentionally). But as for favourites, Melanie’s already mentioned the classic writer I had planned to write about, as my first remembered island story (that actually made a big deal of it being an island).

    There is a beautiful and moving story by Michael Crummey, an Atlantic-Canadian writer, called Sweetland (he’s available from a Top 5 publisher, so perhaps overseas too), about an island that is evacuated of human occupants and all the sorrow and dislocation connected to that kind of situation when one has lived one’s whole life on an island and loves it and knows it but must leave it; Crummey is a poet and writes phrasey and heartful stories and I’m sure you’d love this one if you could ever find a copy.

    • Haha, yes, Buried … PEI is iconic now for so many people isn’t it? And thanks for the recommendation. I will keep an eye out for it.

      And I will look for your post. I had my computer crash big time when I commented on your blog the other night – may not have been your blog’s fault of course but my little challenges continue. I feel I must be jinxed in some way!

  13. Manhattan is an island, so one has one’s choice of novels written by anyone from the very well off Henry James and Edith Wharton to the proletarian Henry Roth to the visitor Anthony Burgess. To be sure, Manhattan features more as city than as island.

    I suppose that my favorite book about an island qua island is Thomas O’Croghan’s On the Island, a memoir of his life on Great Blaskett Island, off the west coast of Ireland.

    For that matter, nearly all of the Odyssey takes place on islands, doesn’t in? Ithaca, Phaiakia, Sicily, Calypso’s island, etc.

    • Yes, I think Manhattan is too urban to really suit the island trope, George. But oh yes, the islands off Ireland are perfect! I think there are a few novels set on Ireland’s islands (that’s hard to say) aren’t there? And yes, the Odyssey! Good one.

  14. Lovely post! I haven’t read these books, but I enjoyed learning about them. Thea Astley’s book sounds particularly good. I can’t believe that was a real historical event!

    A few excellent island books that come to mind for me are:

    – Caribou Island by David Vann, a wonderfully dark story of a marriage falling apart on a remote island in Alaska

    – Island by Alistair MacLeod, a beautiful set of short stories set on Cape Breton in Canada

    – Small Island by Andrea Levy, a powerful novel about Jamaicans struggling to survive in postwar Britain

    I also have Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh on my Kindle to read, but haven’t started it yet.

    • Thanks Andrew. If you haven’t read Astley, this could be a good place to start. Thanks for your suggestions. I like Alistair McLeod but have read little of him. Same with Ghosh. The Vann sounds good. I have read Small Island, and liked it.

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