Saturday, 1 August 2009

The Island at the End of the World

I came across The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor thanks to Jackie at Farm Lane Books and her predictions for this year's Man Booker Prize longlist. Regrettably it did not make the list -an omission that now baffles me- but I still borrowed it from the library as its premise fascinated me and I had high hopes for an enriching reading experience.

Synopsis (courtesy of Waterstone's): Eight-year-old Finn lives with his father, Pa, and sisters Alice and Daisy on the wreck of an ark on a remote and isolated island. The last remaining survivors of the flood, they rely on this tight-knit family unit for emotional and practical support. For Finn, the island and his relationship with Pa encompass his entire world. But Alice - a teenager growing increasingly frustrated and suspicious of the stories Pa tells of their past - begins despairingly to seek contact with the outside world. And when a boy, a stranger, is washed up on the shore, it appears they may not be alone after all. "The Island at the End of the World" is a deeply unnerving and beautifully written exploration of family, reality and fiction, and the baffling nature of the adult world through the eyes of children.

My hopes were not dashed. I loved this book and its sheer ambition. It is a biblical allegory of the Book of Genesis and covers the Ark; Paradise; and the Tree of Knowledge in a present post-apocalyptic setting. The narration in the first part of the novel alternates between Finn & and Pa and in the second between precociously adolescent Alice and Pa. Finn's narration is in his own langauge, an invented eight year old child's phonetic vernacular, and it is difficult to read and decipher at times but I highly admired it. If there is any feature of the novel that may detract readers then it is this, Finn's narration, which may appear gimmicky or even pretentious to some, but is worth persevering with. The stark contrast between the innocence of Finn's observations and the dark, brutal narration or Pa is well-realised as it is later with Alice's more perceptive but rebellious insights. A central theme of the novel is the lengths parents go to protect their children and the paradise/home they create to nurture and keep them safe; when the serpent enters and attempts to destroy that paradise, there is nothing that Pa won't do to stop him.

Alice begins to suspect Pa's dark side and the reader sees it early on but what surprised me, and what I consider Sam Taylor's greatest achievement with this work, is that by the end I sympathised with Pa and pitied his mad delusions and what they had reduced him to. There was an incongruity between the past and present, of Pa (Ben) in "Babylon" (Los Angeles) eight years prior when he envisioned Apocalypse and found God during the first earthquake that preceded "the flood".
Ben worked in marketing, and was a very successful, well-off, typically middle-class husband and father until the earthquake and his subsequent devotion. Although very subtly suggested, I suspect through the timeline that these pre-flood days occurred immediately after 9/11 as allusions are made to War and a President who will bring on annihilation; there is also a passion allusion to Hurricane Katrina, and it may be what inspired the flood.

The ending is very much open to interpretation but is not frustrating, either way the "end" is still the same. It reminded me of an M. Night Shyamalan movie but besides that this novel defies categorisations or a clear-cut genre, in the way that Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Everything is Illuminated by Jonafan Safran Foer stand alone. I can't remember who it was who said that all literature is imitation but Sam Taylor manages to create something new and fresh. He draws on the Bible, Shakespeare (especially The Tempest), and the great desert island novels such as Lord of the Flies, which shares a dystopia, and Robin Crusoe; I was even reminded of Enid Blyon's island books, The Secret Island and Five on an Island in the descriptions of food and how they fed and fended for themselves. Another novel that came to mind is the post-apocalyptic novel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, where they discover that there are other survivors. In The Island at the End of the World they only have three books from which to read:

"[O]n the walls now pears to be some thing I thought dint zist. Books. Hunerds of em by the looks of it maybe even thouzuns. But how. Ikerda sworn Pa told us hed only saved three books from the flood. The three mos portant books of all he said Tales the Bible an Shakespeare. All the other books in the world came from these he said."

The above quote also gives a helpful example of the writing style in Finn's parts as well as the suggestion that not all is as it seems. As Alice tells Finn:

"You only no wat Pa told you."

This is the crux of the novel; children believe what there parents tell them but where parents will go to any lengths to protect their children, children will go to any lengths to discover what their parents aren't telling them. The Tree of Knowledge is a dangerous place

I enjoyed this novel immensely. I love when writers take risks with literature and I look forward to reading more of Sam Taylor's work; his debut novel, The Republic of Trees made my radar last year and promptly fell off it again but that will be remedied in the future along with his second novel.

I leave you with his re-working of the classic nursery rhyme:

Its raining its poring
The neighbors ignoring
They laft at our boar
Til we started to float
An they were all dead in the morning


farmlanebooks said...

I'm so pleased that you enjoyed the book - I admit to only reading your first and last paragraph as I don't want to know too much about it at the moment.

I am so happy that the author decided to send me a copy - I hope to read it very soon.

claire said...

I'm definitely reading this, thanks. Anything that has biblical references, especially apocalyptic, will make me itch until I've read it, lol.

Anonymous said...

Oh now that you and Jackie have loved it I think this is going to have to be added to my wishlist... is it out in paperback yet? I know that sounds picky but I do love hardbacks, only not for commuting, am having a small nightmare with A.S. Byatt at the mo and carrying it around.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, that's perfectly understandable and I sometimes approach reviews similarly depending on the book.

I wonder how you will find Finn's narration though as it isn't for everybody.

I envy you the copy you are being sent :). It's lovely when authors are nice people.

Claire, I hope you enjoy it! I felt likewise and knew it was something that I had to read and wouldn't be content until I had.

Simon, Jackie hasn't read it yet but will be soon. The copy I read from the library was paperback but one of the larger ones (like A Thousand Splendid Suns when it was first published) but the smaller paperback is out in February. I agree with the inconvenience of hardbacks for travelling about with; usually when I am reading a hardback I'll have another book on the go at the same time for taking places with me.

Darlene said...

When my daughter was in high school I couldn't believe that her reading lists were very much the same as the ones that I had. I understand the classics but it's time to shake things up a bit. This sounds like a fantastic read for high school students to discuss in class and would appeal to both male and female. The biblical aspect may not appeal to the public school board but they could at least offer it. Paperback Reader, you are a very clever young lady!

Oh said...

Hello, and wow! Just discovered your blog through Dolce Bellezza. And thoroughly enjoyed this review. I have always wished I might have a job where someone paid me to read ... discovering so many wonderful book blogs has me listing stuff for the bookstore! Headed there today! thanks for this and look forward to visiting often here!

Paperback Reader said...

Darlene, somehow I suspect that school boards may not approve as there is some sexual content - very well done actually as observed through the eyes of childre mostly. I'm all for shaking up the school system and the literature taught though! Thanks for the compliment :).

Hi Oh and thanks for commenting :). My dream job would be one where I was paid to read! Definitely. Book blogging has added many books to my wish-list and bookshop buying too, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Happy bookshop visit!

Green Road said...

This sounds interesting. Very much like The Flood by David Maine. I would recommend The Flood very highly, if you ever get a break in your reading schedule, do try this out.

Paperback Reader said...

Swati, that does sound similar! I shall keep it in mind for when the storm of the reading challenges calms itself.

Sam Taylor said...

Hi Paperback Reader. Glad you enjoyed my book, and thanks for the review. Send me your postal address and I'll send you a signed copy of my previous novel, The Amnesiac.

Best wishes, Sam

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Sam, thank you so much for commenting and for your generosity. I shall e-mail you directly.