Tag Archives: Christopher Priest

Review of The Islanders by Christopher Priest

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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?

islandersThe 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.
10/10

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Review of The Separation by Christopher Priest

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I’m a fairly decisive person. But, very occasionally, a book has me seriously conflicted. The Separation is one such novel. Priest is an interesting and powerful writer with a very individual voice. He is fascinated by the notion of an unreliable narrator – and he doesn’t regard himself as a science fiction or fantasy writer. He’s best known as the author of the book The Prestige, which was made into the successful film. Here in The Separation are many of the themes that we found in The Prestige – a double-hander between two close-knit people bound by ties of love, envy and eventual hatred.

Set against the background of World War II, this book explores the wartime experiences of the Sawyer twins, who had won a bronze at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Both with the same initials, their story is researched by Stuart Gratton, based on primary source material given to him by Angela Chipperton. Gratton’s interest is sparked by a comment he comes across in a memo from Winston Churchill, who mentions J.L. Sawyer, who is both a conscientious objector and RAF fighter pilot. It isn’t until a long time into the book, we realise that it shouldn’t be possible for Angela and Stuart to meet, as they are both from different timelines. What they do have in common, is that their father is J.L. Sawyer…

theseparationAnd that’s as much as I’m going to say about the plotline. Did I say plotline? Hm – the word tangle would be more accurate. Priest certainly weighs in on the literary end of the genre – and although I’ve seen the book described as science fiction, for my money it’s probably the heftiest attempt at alternate history/ies I’ve ever read. There isn’t a single alternate strand running through the book, rather a series of them. Priest constantly reprises the confusion between the twins with other major characters – Churchill has a double to perform his morale-raising public appearances and there is also confusion surrounding Hess and his identity.
As the war progress – in one timestrand, it ends in 1941 after Churchill signs a Peace Treaty with Hess – both men find the constant, bruising conflict frays at their ability to cope. They seem to surface from a nightmarish swirl into pools of lucidity, which constantly shift, throwing up alternatives. I was gripped with the need to find some resolution in this morass of confusing parallel worlds – and I give you due warning, there isn’t one. Priest doesn’t toss his bewildered readers any kind of lifeline. It’s up to you to make up your own mind as to exactly what is going on. Is this some kind of mental hallucination brought on by the brothers’ traumatic experiences? Or a dystopian view of multiple realities, all with their own grim denouement?

What Priest does provide in super-abundance, is detail. Loads of it. We have sheafs of documents from Churchill and his office. There are letters and diary entries from all the main protagonists. Joe and Brigit’s isolated cottage; Jack’s experiences as a fighter pilot; Joe’s time working with the Red Cross – these are all described minutely. Priest’s sense of the time is pitch-perfect and he obviously has extensive knowledge of what was happening during the War. Repeated phrases and events, in different contexts with different outcomes cycle and recycle through the book, making it almost impossible to keep track of exactly how many alternate realities actually surface. If you have an interest and knowledge in the period, you might like to play games at spotting exactly which point Priest deviates from the historical reality.

For me, a big problem with this book is that the twins are prickly, quarrelsome, rather aloof and not terribly likeable – despite their undeniable courage and strong moral standards. And because of the impenetrable plot, you don’t really ever get a real handle on the supporting cast. Brigit, Joe’s German wife and the cause of the twins’ feud, came closest to eliciting my sympathy. But even her actions towards the end of the book seem rather random and unexplained. And this is the book’s weak point. This is a demanding read – and on an emotional level, there isn’t much reward.

However, it certainly provides much brain-food. Priest’s formidable, rather cool intellect is on display in crystalline clarity throughout this book. Has he succeeded in pulling it off? My honest answer – I’m not really sure… I would have liked to care more about the Sawyer twins; I would liked a tad less complexity and cris-crossing of timelines; I found the ending overly abrupt and not entirely convincing – there were other timelines that provide a more satisfactory conclusion to the book, in my opinion.
But I’m willing to bet that I shall still be mulling over this book when many others will have faded into the furniture. Particularly the malign effect of the war on the brothers, which I feel is a powerful, rather under-reported theme running throughout the book. Priest is fond of using a sudden, shocking breakdown of order as a catalyst to some of his temporal confusions in his work – and WW2 certainly provides that in spades…

So, is it a great, if flawed book? Or a good book, overloaded with too much plot or detail to make it anything more than a hefty, rather confusing read?

7/10 or 9/10? – I simply cannot decide!