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Desert island books 🏝🐚📚
Our favourite books set on islands.
By the time you read this newsletter, Sian will be on a Greek island, trying to befriend the beach cats with feta cheese. She’s gathered up her favourite novels with island settings so you can join her in spirit. BYO fruity cocktail.
The Island of Missing Trees
Divided islands are covered in tree resin which, though encrusted round the edges, is still liquid deep inside, still dripping like blood. I have always wondered if this is why islanders, just like sailors in olden times, are strangely prone to superstitions. We haven’t healed from the last storm, that time when the skies came crashing down and the world drained of all colour.
When was the last time you read a book that stopped you in your tracks? The Island of Missing Trees completely floored us at the weekend. Shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it actually took a little while to get into – there’s a sentient fig tree acting as narrator, which could be unbearably twee in the wrong hands. There are little touches of wonder throughout the novel, but Elif Shafak stops short of venturing into magical realism or fantasy. An island setting lends itself particularly well to something otherworldly and her magic is reserved for the island of Cyprus.
Here, she focusses her attention on the miracles of the natural world and the strength of human emotion and connection. The Island of Missing Trees tells the story of the impossible romance between Greek Cypriot teenage boy Kostas and Turkish Cypriot Defne, and in it, tells the story of a divided country. It’s a portrayal of love, in its many shapes, and with many flaws, and asks if something broken can ever be pieced back together. And if it can, where does it belong?
Names For The Sea
There must be a better reason to travel, a better way of travelling, than the hoarding of sights your friends haven’t seen.
The recurring themes in Sarah Moss’s novels – women pushed to their limits, bubbling tensions and strains in a community, interaction between humans and natural landscapes – really lend themselves to the confined nature of an island setting. In Night Waking, Anna is a mother of two on the brink of a breakdown on a Hebridean island. Moss’s debut Cold Earth was published in 2010 but it hits particularly close to the bone at the moment – while a group of archeologists are on a dig in Greenland, a pandemic is sweeping across the world.
Her travel memoir, Names For The Sea, is about Moss’s own time in Iceland. She brings her extraordinary prose along for the ride, so you often forget that you’re reading non-fiction. The book isn’t just about travel, it’s also about the idea of temporality and what it means to call another country – another island – home. This book often gets overlooked in favour of Moss’s fiction, but she’s as frank and insightful as ever and it’s one of our favourites.
If you liked this, you’ll also love: Bodies of Light – another staggeringly good novel by Sarah Moss, and The Sealwoman’s Gift which is based on the true story of the kidnapping of women in 17th century Iceland.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
In this version, the island is paradise. It is hot, beautiful, drenched in beaches so blue you’d swear that blue is the colour of water. But there is another version.
It’s still hard to believe that How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is Cherie Jones’s debut novel. Shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize, it’s set on the island of Barbados and shows a much darker side to the island than is usually portrayed, away from the tourist traps and golden beaches. It’s dark, it’s raw. It’s no kind of paradise.
The difficult topics – violence, sexual assault, and murder – are explored through three different marriages and the prose is absolutely unflinching. Jones plays with the claustrophobia of the island setting – drawing on stifling temperatures and a menacing portrayal of an idyllic landscape – and this adds another layer to an already intense story. But it’s a compelling one that will have you rooting for the characters of this wholly original and unforgettable novel.
There’s really no comparison to be made with this book, it is entirely unique, but if you enjoyed it we think you’ll also like Dominicana by Angie Cruz.
Little by little I began to listen better: to the sap moving in the plants, to the blood in my veins. I learned to understand my own intention, to prune and to add, to feel where the power gathered and speak the right words to draw it to its height. That was the moment I lived for, when it all came clear at last and the spell could sing with its pure note, for me and me alone.
As much as we love a literary trend, we think we’re done with the Battle of Troy now. Though we can’t protest about Greek myth fatigue too much – every time a new one is released we snap it up (Elektra and Stone Blind are next). But there’s one retelling that still stands out above the rest – Madeline Miller’s Circe. If you haven’t had the pleasure, you’re about to meet your favourite deserted island-dwelling witch.
Circe is the reason we read all other retellings. In Miller’s novel, she isn’t a plot point in a heroic tale of a man, she is given her own agency and lives on her own terms. When the gods become fearful of her powers, she is banished to the island of Aiaia. Her connection with nature is where she harnesses her witchcraft. Island life is far from idyllic but she learns to thrive on her land despite the pigs, the gods, and the men who punctuate her peaceful life (they are, after all, one and the same). She sheds the shame that she is expected to carry and learns to trust her instincts and find her truest self. Perhaps that was what the gods were really afraid of.