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I hadn't read anything by Christopher Priest before (though I liked the film The Prestige). I really enjoyed The Islanders, which is an elegant, enigmatic work of imagination and literary creation. The book is set in an world not too unlike our own in terms of culture and technology, but on a planet where much of the land takes the form of a giant archipelago. A few powerful states exist on a single continent in the north, and engage in wars there and elsewhere, but most of the planet's inhabitants live and go about their familiar lives on the myriad, more-or-less-independent islands. Well, "familiar" except for the fantastically lethal insects, the temporal anomalies that make mapping the islands very difficult, and the weird psychic phenomena that occur in certain places.
The "story" here is presented in a cryptic manner, with the initial narrator purporting to be writing the introduction to a travel guide to the islands of the Dream Archipelago. From the start, there are reliability issues: he claims never to have left his home island and that the whole task is pointless anyway, since the temporal vortices and the confusion of place names make mapping nigh impossible. Also, what we later learn about this character makes it seem rather unlikely that he could have put his name to any of what follows.
Such are the puzzles and incongruities that fill this intriguing, sometimes frustrating book. The chapters that follow sometimes adhere to the "gazetteer" format, describing the geographic and historical features of different islands, but others dispense with that, giving us vignettes about certain select inhabitants or even first person narratives by those people.
Gradually, we get pieces of several underlying stories, each of which raises its own mysteries and insinuates a sense of their being linked somehow to the mysteries of other stories. A famous mime is murdered, but the person convicted might not have been the one truly responsible. A reclusive writer might have something to do with the crime -- and is the social activist who has an affair with him quite what she claims to be? Meanwhile, a rogue installation artist drills tunnels through islands, turning them into gigantic wind instruments (look for a hilarious email exchange when another guerrilla artist suggests a creative partnership). A young woman pines for her lover, who has been drafted by one of the warring militaries (which seem to have presences throughout the archipelago, in spite of how often the gazetteer emphasizes its neutrality) and is stationed incommunicado on an island that doesn’t officially exist. Elsewhere, a young man falls for a friend who is investigating ancient, mysterious towers, but an encounter with a ghost changes their relationship. Some characters have a long chapter devoted to them, others, such as a philandering painter, reappear in different contexts throughout the book.
If there are straightforward answers to the puzzles, they remain oblique to me, even after a second reading, but if you're familiar with writers like Murakami or Borges, you'll know that straightforward answers aren't always the point. Here, the ambiguity seems deliberate, an invitation to readers to fill in the blanks with their own interpretations.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this sort of game playing, and found a few threads to be a little too open-ended (what was going on with the drones?) Still, Priest writes with such self-assurance and grasp of meaningful human detail, that the complex, shifting topography of the Dream Archipelago, however imperfectly mapped, is well worth exploring.
In sum, an enjoyable introduction to Priest for me, though possibly not the best one for everyone. I look forward to reading more of his work.
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Would you try another book from Christopher Priest and/or Michael Maloney?
I have read several books by Priest in print and like them. The Islanders is one of his more complicated narratives however and I realized belatedly that it is one of those books that should really be read in print to enjoy all of its nuances. The audio version simply does not give listeners the possibility of going back in the text and dwelling longer on some more significant passage. That is not to say that there are no coherent narratives in the novel; there are quite a few. The point is however that the book has additional dimensions when readers start to compare these narratives. In any case, Maloney really makes a good job with a difficult material. So, despite my reservations about the audiobook, I would easily recommend Priest's novel in print, and Maloney's performance in general.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful