The Islanders by Christopher Priest
Reviewed by Niall Alexander
26 September 2011
Whatever you think The Islanders is, think again.
That is unless you think it's the first new novel by Christopher Priest in almost a decade; it is that. But none of the other things you may or may not or may yet imagine of it are even close, to be sure.
Actually . . . strike that. The Islanders isn't even a novel in the conventional sense, because despite appearances to the contrary, or else precisely because of them, The Islanders is not so much a narrative, with a plot and characters or any of the usual storytelling accoutrements, as it is a travel guide—a work of reference—purportedly written by and for tourists en route to or through the Dream Archipelago, which is to say "the largest geographical feature on our world" (p.8): an elusive arrangement of some several hundred thousand islands, large and small, scattered about a single vast ocean and enclosed on the north and the south by two gargantuan continents entrenched in perpetual warfare with one another.
I say that. But in truth (not that there is truthfully a single truth to be arrived at throughout this astonishing testament to Priest's much-missed mode of magical realism, unless there is), these too—these broad, whispered, hand-me-down physical characteristics—are called into question on more than one occasion as we track the seemingly meandering ley lines of The Islanders. For various reasons, you see, foremost amongst them gravitational anomalies known as temporal gradients which make aerial navigation practically impossible—and this is very much par for the course in Priest's latest—"There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones" (p.14).
As the renowned novelist and Inclair Laureate of Literature Chaster Kammeston allows in his nonchalant introduction to the thirty-some incongruous entries which follow, including several which insist the honor is a posthumous one, as the author is dead—wait, say what?—"Confusion is standard and normal, I'm afraid" (p.12). To wit, do not expect to exit The Islanders any more certain than you entered as to where exactly these islands are, what they are called—for a daunting number of patois languages, thankfully absent this guide, render their meanings, where rarely they are known, quite, quite meaningless, or else overburden each island with such a wealth of meaning as to effect the self-same result—nor even, indeed, if they exist.
Nothing, in short, is truly certain in The Islanders. In that, again according to Chaster—Chas to his brother Wolter, who apparently pens at least one passage (though it follows that there is doubt about this, as with everything else)—it is "a typical island enterprise: it is incomplete, a bit muddled and it wants to be liked. The unidentified writer or writers of these brief sketches have an agenda which is not mine, but I do not object to it" (p.16). Nor should you, or I, for though The Islanders seems from the outside at a distant remove from all that its ingenious author has composed in the past, in several of its most significant interior aspects it is, I think, at an easy peace with Priest's body of work. For instance, certain shared themes arise to bridge the dizzying gap between the now of this returning master of speculative fiction and the then, among them: on the island of Omhuuv, illusion a la The Prestige (1995), by way of the dearly beloved mime artiste Commis and The Lord of Mystery, who requires a gargantuan sheet of glass to perform his signature trick; one last set-piece before the curtain comes crashing, smashing down.
Meanwhile, very much recollecting The Separation (2002), there are in addition multiple occurrences of doppelgängers, the uncanny particulars of which I’d really rather refrain from spoiling; and all about the archipelago—which itself puts one in mind of another of Priest's early preoccupations, namely the inherent segregation of island life—a distinct idea of what it is to be British is evinced in the attitudes of those folks who call Muriseay or Derril or Tremm home: of idle curiosity as to another way, but rarely if ever anything more ambitious than that. In general, the people of each island respond with typical British acquiescence to everything, from the disruptive exploits of certain self-styled "art guerrillas" who ravage the pristine landscape with huge ugly tunnels in the name of meaning amongst the meaninglessness of this modern world so like our own, to the forever war that rages from pole to pole, between Sudmaieure and Nordmaieure—not that "Nordmaieure" is that latter landmass's name in any event—by way of the works of nature itself:
Our palette of emotional colors is the islands themselves and the mysterious sea channels that churn between them. We relish our sea breezes, our regular monsoons, the banks of piling clouds that dramatize the seascapes, the sudden squalls, the color of the light reflecting from the dazzling sea, the lazy heat, the currents and the tides and the unexplained gales, and on the whole prefer not to know whence they have come, nor whither they are destined.
As for this book, I declare that it will do no harm. (p. 16)
What we have here, then, "is a book about islands and islanders, full of information and facts, a great deal I knew nothing about, and even more on which I had opinions without substance. People too," (p.7) as Kammeston adds in his nonplussed foreword, as if as an afterthought. And without a doubt, at the outset those "characters" that there are in The Islanders seem just so; afterthoughts, and little more. However, as Priest's inspired narrative progresses from island to island by way of the alphabet—for so this cunning chronicle is arranged—several are revealed to be greater than thus. The aforementioned mime artiste Commis, early on the victim of an appalling accident, recurs again and again; as does the installation artist Jordenn Yo, who carves vast tunnels into the bedrock of various islands in order that she may make monolithic wind instruments of them, maybe; and Dryd Bathurst, celebrated bachelor and painter of landscapes. That is not to mention Esla Caurer, social reformer; the poet Kal Kapes; Esphoven Muy, philosopher of wind and water; and of course Chaster Kammeston, the reclusive novelist who you will recall began this boggling, brilliant thing . . . though he is needless to say neither interested nor particularly involved in its end.
Each of the individuals The Islanders is attentive towards is related to each of the others in two ways. Firstly, by dint of this narrative's largely arbitrary structure, they are all celebrities of a sort—as well they must be for their stories to have spread from end to end of the archipelago. Their respective arcs, such as they are, are in this manner utterly disordered: the reader will often know the eventual fate of a character before there has been any account of their life or work or influence, if Priest grants us even that (and there are no guarantees). In strange and surprising ways, one story—some hundreds of pages removed from the narrative to which it loosely refers—pays another off, and sows the seeds of another, and another. And around it goes, describing elusive ovals in the sea rather than the intersecting lines one is perhaps accustomed to.
This may be a largely architectural consideration, but Priest makes ample use of it to effectively deflect expectations, and stress that the journey, however circular it seems, is of at least as much importance in The Islanders as the destination. I would too assert that a markedly more telling connection exists between Bathurst and Caurer and Kapes and so on, for all the characters, such as they are, are also artists: shapers of sand and wind and water, thought and life and language. If The Islanders can be said to be about any one thing—and I am not suggesting that it could be, or should be—then it is about art . . . about what art is, and what it is to be an artist. These are questions one finds Priest's latest deeply engaged with, in its inimitable way. In point of fact, The Islanders concludes on a frenzied contemplation of that very abstract.
For an artistic endeavor so concerned with the idea of art, it is apt that The Islanders proves in the final summation such an artful work. Christopher Priest has long been the sort of author critics tend to whip out the serious descriptors for—his texts are not memorable but profound, and his voice is not merely confident, it is formidable—and these are reasonable enough distinctions to make, in this instance. Why, judging only on the basis of this mesmeric travel guide to "an endless sprawl of lovely islands," (p.382) I would not for a second hesitate to declare Priest a giant of the genre, whose colossal standing seems not at all diminished by the decade he has spent traversing the archipelago of his imagination. If you will, consider The Islanders a loose but beautiful arrangement of his incomparable annotations.