Christopher Priest’s work is always a challenge. He regularly pushes the envelope with his beautifully written prose, as in The Separation, which I reviewed here. And this offering is no exception. So would I enjoy this book more than I enjoyed The Separation?
The Dream Archipelago is a vast network of islands. The names of the islands are different depending on who you talk to, their very locations seem to twist and shift. Some islands have been sculpted into vast musical instruments, others are home to lethal creatures, others the playground for high society. Hot winds blow across archipelago and a war fought between two distant continents is played out across the waters. The Islanders serves as an untrustworthy but enticing guide to the islands, an intriguing multi-layered tale of a murder and the suspect legacy of its appealing but definitely untrustworthy narrator.
Whether this book could be called a novel is a matter for debate – the overall narrative spine of The Islanders is a visitor’s guide to some of the islands within the Dream Archipelago with a series of short, factually concise guides to a range of islands. At the same time, we become increasingly aware that this task is doomed to failure. Because of temporal anomalies that are now routinely used by aircraft to shorten flights, it is very difficult to accurately map large sections of the Archipelago. It gets worse – even trying to standardise the names of these islands proves a challenge as there are frequently anything up to three alternatives names for each one. And at least one of the poorer, less attractive islands appears to have appropriated the name of one of its more prosperous, popular neighbours in the hope of attracting a section of their tourist trade.
Who has embarked on this project of writing a gazetteer? We are never told. At least we are on solid ground at the beginning of the book – the famous novelist, Chaster Kammeston has written the Prologue – an oblique and rather qualified approval of the whole undertaking. However, one of the sections near the end of the book describes Chaster’s death – so how can he have read and approved of the manuscript sufficiently to have written the Prologue? Again, don’t expect Priest to provide any answers.
If the book had merely contained a series of tourist guide details about a bunch of non-existent islands, it would have joined my growing pile of DID NOT FINISH books on the grounds that Life is too short. But Priest is a fine writer – and mixed in amongst the clipped, impersonal island descriptions are a number of vivid characters, some amusing, some dark and some plain sad. A handful of these characters, including Chaster, constantly keep appearing and reappearing, building up a drifting, insubstantial plot that shifts as soon as you start to rely on it as the thread that will pull this book into a coherent whole. Even the chronology jumps around – nothing is certain.
So… did I enjoy The Islanders? Oh yes. Priest’s evocation of a vast, shifting population of islands that are resistant to any firm cataloguing is a temptingly attractive backdrop to his flickers of characterisation and drama. I will be thinking about this book for a long time to come.