So here I am at the end of another Christopher Priest novel – his new one – and I have that wonderful feeling again: that feeling of blurriness, of coming through something opaque and misty, of being told a story that’s made up of hundreds of other stories that may, or may not, be true. I’m also, as usual, unsettled by the whole experience, by the disturbing moments that leave little drips of unease clinging to you: such as standing near a large, black insect with poisonous bristles, or under a sheet of glass that hangs overhead like a guillotine, or in a dark room where there’s a man standing by the door and he turns and there’s something wrong with his head. It’s the wrong shape. The fact that these trademark elements of Priest’s writing – the chilly strangeness, the elegant lack of clarity – are so vividly present in The Islanders is one of the reasons it feels like a coming-together of old strands, as if this book was always in some way the intended destination of his previous novels. The other big reason for this impression is the fact some of the characters in The Islanders are ones we’ve met before – the archaeologists Torm and Alvie, the novelist Moylita Kaine. And then there’s the setting of the novel: the Dream Archipelago, a fictional landscape Priest created early in his career and has seemed a little obsessed with ever since.
The precise location of this archipelago, and the exact nature of the islands and the islanders, is never made clear – it’s something that’s always just out of reach and uncertain – but that’s the point of the book. Priest loves the idea that you can never be certain of a place, or of people, that as soon as you try to describe them you will get something wrong, that reality isn’t what you think it is because your perception is fallible. In one of his greatest novels, Inverted World, it was the shape and nature of the planet itself that was in doubt; in The Affirmation, it was the truthfulness of the narrator that was in question. In The Islanders, the character of Chaster Kammeston puts it this way: “None of it is real.”
The structure of The Islanders adds to all this uncertainty. Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Keith Roberts’s Pavane, there is no traditional through-line to the book – instead, there is a series of short sections that start off seemingly unrelated but slowly shift towards each other until, by the end, we have connecting strings that hang between the chapters, all delicate and barely there. If there is a core, it is the story of the murder of a mime artist killed when that dangling sheet of glass falls on him, but even here the first version of events is complicated by the second and even further by the third.
If you’re an admirer of Priest’s novels, all of this will be absolutely fine – in fact, it will be one of the profoundest pleasures of The Islanders. You’ll relish the mistiness and the lack of straight lines, the way the narrative fades in and out of clarity and the fact that, whereas other novelists tend always to provide something to hold on to, a handrail that will take you comfortably through the narrative, Priest never does. He certainly keeps hold of you with that unmistakable style that’s beautifully restrained but also disturbingly vivid, but what he never does is say: “This is the story.” He is a writer fascinated by illusion and pulling off a trick built from words, but what he never quite tells you is exactly what the trick is, or how it is done.
The Dream Archipelago is a vast string of thousands of islands, wrapping themselves around the world between two great continents. Some of them are deserts, some are home to great cities and others have been riddled with tunnels and turned into gigantic musical instruments. The Islanders is a gazetteer to the islands … and a murder story. It’s also a musing on the nature of art and the artists who make it.
The Islanders is Christopher Priest’s first novel in almost a decade, a fact which itself makes it one of the most interesting books to be released this year. His previous novel, The Separation, a stimulating and layered book about alternate versions of WWII, was one of the very finest novels of the 2000s. True to expectations, Priest has returned with a fiercely intelligent book that works on multiple different levels and which rewards close, thoughtful reading.
The Islanders initially appears to be a travel gazetteer, a Lonely Planet guide to a place that doesn’t exist. Several islands are presented with geographic information, notes on places of interest and thoughts on locations to visit. Then we get entries which are short stories (sometimes only tangentially involving the island the entry is named after), or exchanges of correspondence between people on different islands. One entry is a succession of court and police documents revolving around a murder, followed by an extract from a much-later-published book that exonerates the murderer. Later entries in the book seem to clarify what really happened in this case, but in the process open up more questions than are answered. Oh, a key figure the gazetteer references frequently is revealed to be dead, despite him having produced an introduction to the book (apparently after reading it). Maybe he faked his death. Or this is a newer edition with the old introduction left intact. Or something else has happened.
The Islanders defies easy categorisation. It’s not a novel in the traditional sense but it has an over-arcing storyline. It isn’t a collection of short stories either, though it does contain several distinct and self-contained narratives. It isn’t a companion or guidebook, though readers of Priest’s earlier novel The Affirmation or short story collection The Dream Archipelago will find rewards in using it as such. It is hugely metafictional in that themes, tropes and ideas that Priest has been working on for years recur and are explored: doppelgängers, twins, conflicted memories, magicians, performance art and shifting realities feature and are referenced. At several points Priest seems to be commenting about his own works rather than the imaginary ones written by a protagonist … until one of those books turns out to be called The Affirmation, the same title as one of Priest’s earlier, best novels. A character’s suggestion that a work be split into four sections and then experienced in reverse order may be a clue as to how the novel should be read … but may be a red herring. Several key moments of wry humour (The Islanders is probably Priest’s funniest book) suggest that we shouldn’t be taking the endeavour seriously. Moments of dark, psychological horror suggest we should.
The novel embraces its gazetteer format. References to another island in an entry may be a clue that a vital piece of information can be found in the corresponding chapter about the other island. Sometimes this is the case, sometimes it isn’t. Recurring names (some of them possibly aliases) and references to tunnels and havens provide links that bind the book together. The strangest chapter appears to be divorced from the rest of the book altogether, but subtle clues suggest curious relationships with the rest of the book and indeed with other of Priest’s works (though foreknowledge of these is not required). The interlinking tapestry of references, names and events forms a puzzle that the reader is invited to try to piece together, except that the pieces don’t always fit together and indeed, some appear to be missing altogether.
The Islanders is a weird book. It’s also funny, warm and smart. It’s also cold, alienating and dark. It’s certainly self-contradictory. The only thing I can say with certainty about it is that it is about islands and the people who live on them, and if there is a better, more thought-provoking and rewarding novel published this year I will be surprised. The book is available now in the UK and on import in the USA.
Whatever you think The Islanders is, think again.
That is unless you think it’s the first new novel by Christopher Priest in almost a decade; it is that. But none of the other things you may or may not or may yet imagine of it are even close, to be sure.
Actually … strike that. The Islanders isn’t even a novel in the conventional sense, because despite appearances to the contrary, or else precisely because of them, The Islanders is not so much a narrative, with a plot and characters or any of the usual storytelling accoutrements, as it is a travel guide – a work of reference – purportedly written by and for tourists en route to or through the Dream Archipelago, which is to say “the largest geographical feature on our world” (p.8): an elusive arrangement of some several hundred thousand islands, large and small, scattered about a single vast ocean and enclosed on the north and the south by two gargantuan continents entrenched in perpetual warfare with one another.
I say that. But in truth (not that there is truthfully a single truth to be arrived at throughout this astonishing testament to Priest’s much-missed mode of magical realism, unless there is), these too – these broad, whispered, hand-me-down physical characteristics – are called into question on more than one occasion as we track the seemingly meandering ley lines of The Islanders. For various reasons, you see, foremost amongst them gravitational anomalies known as temporal gradients which make aerial navigation practically impossible – and this is very much par for the course in Priest’s latest – “There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones” (p.14).
As the renowned novelist and Inclair Laureate of Literature Chaster Kammeston allows in his nonchalant introduction to the thirty-some incongruous entries which follow, including several which insist the honour is a posthumous one, as the author is dead – wait, say what? – “Confusion is standard and normal, I’m afraid” (p.12). To wit, do not expect to exit The Islanders any more certain than you entered as to where exactly these islands are, what they are called – for a daunting number of patois languages, thankfully absent this guide, render their meanings, where rarely they are known, quite, quite meaningless, or else overburden each island with such a wealth of meaning as to effect the self-same result – nor even, indeed, if they exist.
Nothing, in short, is truly certain in The Islanders. In that, again according to Chaster – Chas to his brother Wolter, who apparently pens at least one passage (though it follows that there is doubt about this, as with everything else) – it is “a typical island enterprise: it is incomplete, a bit muddled and it wants to be liked. The unidentified writer or writers of these brief sketches have an agenda which is not mine, but I do not object to it.” (p.16). Nor should you, or I, for though The Islanders seems from the outside at a distant remove from all that its ingenious author has composed in the past, in several of its most significant interior aspects it is, I think, at an easy peace with Priest’s body of work. For instance, certain shared themes arise to bridge the dizzying gap between the now of this returning master of speculative fiction and the then, among them: on the island of Omhuuv, illusion a la The Prestige (1995), by way of the dearly beloved mime artiste Commis and The Lord of Mystery, who requires a gargantuan sheet of glass to perform his signature trick; one last set-piece before the curtain comes crashing, smashing down.
Meanwhile, very much recollecting The Separation (2002), there are in addition multiple occurrences of doppelgängers, the uncanny particulars of which I’d really rather refrain from spoiling; and all about the archipelago – which itself puts one in mind of another of Priest’s early preoccupations, namely the inherent segregation of island life – a distinct idea of what it is to be British is evinced in the attitudes of those folks who call Muriseay or Derril or Tremm home: of idle curiosity as to another way, but rarely if ever anything more ambitious than that. In general, the people of each island respond with typical British acquiescence to everything, from the disruptive exploits of certain self-styled “art guerrillas” who ravage the pristine landscape with huge ugly tunnels in the name of meaning amongst the meaninglessness of this modern world so like our own, to the forever war that rages from pole to pole, between Sudmaieure and Nordmaieure – not that “Nordmaieure” is that latter landmass’s name in any event – by way of the works of nature itself:
Our palette of emotional colours is the islands themselves and the mysterious sea channels that churn between them. We relish our sea breezes, our regular monsoons, the banks of piling clouds that dramatize the seascapes, the sudden squalls, the colour of the light reflecting from the dazzling sea, the lazy heat, the currents and the tides and the unexplained gales, and on the whole prefer not to know whence they have come, nor whither they are destined.
As for this book, I declare that it will do no harm. (p. 16)
What we have here, then, “is a book about islands and islanders, full of information and facts, a great deal I knew nothing about, and even more on which I had opinions without substance. People too,” (p.7) as Kammeston adds in his nonplussed foreword, as if as an afterthought. And without a doubt, at the outset those “characters” that there are in The Islanders seem just so; afterthoughts, and little more. However, as Priest’s inspired narrative progresses from island to island by way of the alphabet – for so this cunning chronicle is arranged – several are revealed to be greater than thus. The aforementioned mime artiste Commis, early on the victim of an appalling accident, recurs again and again; as does the installation artist Jordenn Yo, who carves vast tunnels into the bedrock of various islands in order that she may make monolithic wind instruments of them, maybe; and Dryd Bathurst, celebrated bachelor and painter of landscapes. That is not to mention Esla Caurer, social reformer; the poet Kal Kapes; Esphoven Muy, philosopher of wind and water; and of course Chaster Kammeston, the reclusive novelist who you will recall began this boggling, brilliant thing … though he is needless to say neither interested nor particularly involved in its end.
Each of the individuals The Islanders is attentive towards is related to each of the others in two ways. Firstly, by dint of this narrative’s largely arbitrary structure, they are all celebrities of a sort – as well they must be for their stories to have spread from end to end of the archipelago. Their respective arcs, such as they are, are in this manner utterly disordered: the reader will often know the eventual fate of a character before there has been any account of their life or work or influence, if Priest grants us even that (and there are no guarantees). In strange and surprising ways, one story – some hundreds of pages removed from the narrative to which it loosely refers – pays another off, and sows the seeds of another, and another. And around it goes, describing elusive ovals in the sea rather than the intersecting lines one is perhaps accustomed to.
This may be a largely architectural consideration, but Priest makes ample use of it to effectively deflect expectations, and stress that the journey, however circular it seems, is of at least as much importance in The Islanders as the destination. I would too assert that a markedly more telling connection exists between Bathurst and Caurer and Kapes and so on, for all the characters, such as they are, are also artists: shapers of sand and wind and water, thought and life and language. If The Islanders can be said to be about any one thing – and I am not suggesting that it could be, or should be – then it is about art … about what art is, and what it is to be an artist. These are questions one finds Priest’s latest deeply engaged with, in its inimitable way. In point of fact, The Islanders concludes on a frenzied contemplation of that very abstract.
For an artistic endeavour so concerned with the idea of art, it is apt that The Islanders proves in the final summation such an artful work. Christopher Priest has long been the sort of author critics tend to whip out the serious descriptors for – his texts are not memorable but profound, and his voice is not merely confident, it is formidable – and these are reasonable enough distinctions to make, in this instance. Why, judging only on the basis of this mesmeric travel guide to “an endless sprawl of lovely islands,” (p.382) I would not for a second hesitate to declare Priest a giant of the genre, whose colossal standing seems not at all diminished by the decade he has spent traversing the archipelago of his imagination. If you will, consider The Islanders a loose but beautiful arrangement of his incomparable annotations.
Gary K. Wolfe, Locus —
Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago – thousands of islands which constitute a neutral zone in a world whose continental powers are constantly at war – has been a recurring feature in his fiction since nearly the beginning of his career; collection The Dream Archipelago originally appeared in 1981 in France, though not in English until 1999 (and was reissued in an expanded edition by Gollancz a couple of years ago), and the islands show up in a different way in his 1981 novel The Affirmation. So it’s fair to assume he’s been thinking about this setting for quite a while, and the first thing you wonder, as you realize that his new novel The Islanders returns to it in greater depth than ever before, is whether we’re expected to have kept up with his various sojourns there over the last three decades. The answer to this is a pretty simple no: the novel stands quite well on its own for readers who’ve never heard of the Archipelago, although those who remember some near-classic earlier tales such as “The Watched” might enjoy the added fillip of a promise fulfilled. Islands and archipelagos seem to have a peculiar attraction to SF and fantasy writers, from Wells to Le Guin – maybe it’s the paradoxical combination of isolation and community that enables them to function like miniature planetary federations, minus the space-op hardware – but I don’t think I’ve seen such a setting quite as richly and ingeniously deployed as Priest does it here, in or out of SF.
The second question readers might well ask upon opening The Islanders is a somewhat more restrained and respectful version of WTF? Is this in fact a novel at all, and is it going to have anything resembling a plot? The Islanders is cast in the form of a gazetteer of several of the islands making up the Dream Archipelago, with something like three dozen alphabetically arranged entries – some barely a page long, a few almost novella length – introduced by a Chaster Kammeston, who we later learn is a legendary novelist and who lets us know up front that the “unidentified writer or writers of these brief sketches have an agenda which is not mine, but I do not object to it.” But that may not be entirely the case, as we begin to piece together more and more about Kammeston’s reliability as a narrator, or as a novelist, or even as the writer of the introduction (there are good reasons to suspect the book was compiled after his death). The Islanders features not only unreliable narrators, but unreliable narrators within unreliable narrators, and the degree to which Priest generates a kind of Nabokovian suspense by inviting us to unspool the various narrative threads is as masterful as it is playful. Dictionary-style novels, in which the plotlines are distributed among a succession of narratives and viewpoints, have been written before, of course – one thinks of Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, or Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, or even Geoff Ryman’s 253 – but what emerges here is more than a narrative trick. Rather it’s a set of interwoven tales that develop a surprising cumulative power and unity.
Since the islands that make up the Archipelago form a neutral zone between the combative nations of the northern continent and the Antarctica-like southern continent where these nations agree to wage their endless wars, refugees, exiles, and military bases make up a significant part of the economy and culture of many of the islands. In many ways these cultures are recognizably like our own; the inhabitants check their email on laptops connected to the Internet; paparazzi plague celebrities; unmanned drones patrol the airspace around military installations; unemployment and poverty plague the larger cities; large-scale conceptual art generates controversy wherever it’s installed. But there are crucial differences as well: the islands are not mappable, no one knows exactly how many there are, and even time is fluid and unpredictable. Most of this is due to the one significant SF conceit that Priest introduces (and that he needs in order to make his leapfrogging narrative work): “temporal vortices” which circle the planet, wreaking havoc with perceptions of space and time, but which can be used by skilled aircraft pilots as a sort of mini-wormholes. Thus some of the events that initially seem to be roughly contemporaneous turn out to have occurred centuries apart, and a given island may look different each time you approach it.
The most significant of these events centers around a fairly limited cast of recurring characters, nearly all of whom turn out to be tricksters of one sort or another. Chief among these are Kammeston himself, who may be hiding a dark secret from his youth; his one-time lover and revered social reformer Esla Caurer; the lustful painter Dryd Bathurst (whose masterpieces dot the islands and whose biography was written by a disapproving Kammeston); the conceptual artist Jordenn Yo, who specializes in elaborately designed large-scale tunnels; and a host of secondary characters such as the reporter Dant Willer, Caurer’s former assistant and occasional double; the cartographer Esphoven Muy; and the mime Commis, whose murder at a theater on a remote island turns out to be one of the pivotal events of the novel, and works as a pretty good murder mystery on its own terms. (Readers looking for some of the illusionist trappings of The Prestige may be pleased to find an extended behind-the-scenes account of a magician’s disappearing act at this same theater.) In fact, attentive use of mystery-reading skills might not be a bad way to approach The Islanders, since often a minor detail in one chapter, such as a smudge on a hand, is later revealed as highly significant, as in a Gene Wolfe novel. But like Wolfe, Priest is not satisfied with a catalogue of ingenious narrative tricks; his prose is supple, elegant, and seductive, his insights about memory and perception tantalizing, his skill at visualizing the radically different land and seascapes of the islands endlessly compelling. The Islanders may seem a bit of a Chinese puzzle box at first, but for readers who stick with it – and it’s not really that hard to catch on – it’s as neatly fitted and elegant as the most gorgeous of those boxes, and it contains some very neat treasures.
Alison Flood, Sunday Times —
When is a mystery not a mystery? When it’s hidden in the pages of a guide book. Christopher Priest, who may be unique in winning both a significant fantasy and literary prize for the same novel, The Prestige, journeys to intriguingly bizarre territory in his new outing. The Islanders appears at first glance to be a travel guide to the Dream Archipelago (a group of islands strewn across the equator between a world’s warring north and frozen south continents), but it gradually becomes clear that scattered among the travel information are clues to an unsolved murder. As so often with Priest, we arc in the hands of unreliable narrators here, but it makes for a glowing mosaic of a novel, puzzling, transporting and nigh-on impossible not to start again immediately once finished.
Science fiction, at its best, makes us question what we understand and doubt the world we live in. Even so, few works are as unsettling as The Islanders by Christopher Priest. This drily comic gazetteer of the Dream Archipelago hides stories of horror, artistic rivalry and possibly murder. But even as you disentangle these stories, revealed piecemeal, out of chronological order, and from different viewpoints, other puzzles keep arising. There are no simple answers, but the endless questions make this one of the most complex, challenging and satisfying fictions from one of our finest novelists.
Christopher Priest’s work has given me some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, so I opened The Islanders – his first novel in nine years – with no small amount of anticipation. For this book, Priest returns to the world of the Dream Archipelago, setting for a number of short stories and, in part, 1981’s The Affirmation (rest assured that The Islanders stands alone, though readers of the earlier works will recognise a few names and concepts). The Dream Archipelago is a great, world-spanning array of islands; a neutral zone between two countries at war. What we’re presented with in the pages of Priest’s book is ostensibly a gazetteer of some of these islands; but, as well as the standard geographical information one would expect, some of its entries comprise narratives or other sorts of text.
Who (within the context of the fiction) wrote and compiled these entries is uncertain; but the gazetteer’s introduction is credited to one Chaster Kammeston, an Archipelagian native and celebrated writer in the world of the book. Not that Kammeston is convinced that the volume he’s introducing will be of much use, as actually mapping and navigating the Archipelago are nigh on impossible: partly because there are so many different naming conventions for the same geographical features (the ones that actually have names, at least); and partly because of the naturally occurring “temporal vortices” which distort one’s very perception of the world. Kammeston is even unsure whether he’s the right person to be writing an introduction to a work about the vast expanses of the Archipelago, given that, as he says, “I have never stepped off the island [of my birth], and I expect never to do so before I die.” (p. 1).
But something is not quite right, here. We meet Chaster Kammeston again in the entries of the gazetteer itself; and, if we can believe what we read there, not only has he willingly left his home island several times, he is also dead – yet there he is, alive to write an introduction, apparently after the book has been compiled. Kammeston’s is just one story woven through The Islanders; other characters (many of them artists and thinkers of one kind or another) and events recur: the mime Commis is murdered in a theatre when a sheet of glass is dropped on him from above – but maybe the identity of his killer is not as cut-and-dried as it first appeared; Jordenn Yo travels the Archipelago, creating art installations by tunnelling through islands (presumably that’s what landed her in prison); we may never meet the painter Dryd Bathurst properly ‘in person’, as it were, but we hear enough about him to piece together an impression of who he is and what he might have done.
That last comment points towards a key aspect of The Islanders: namely, that its very structure forces us to construct its story (or stories) for ourselves. This is more than just a simple matter of chapters being arranged out of chronological order; as Adam Roberts notes, the novel itself can be seen as an archipelago, with each chapter an ‘island’ of narrative. Formally, Priest’s novel embodies something of what it suggests about island life:
Islands gave an underlying feeling of circularity, of coast, a limit to what you could achieve or where you might go. You knew where you were but there was invariably a sense that there were other islands, other places to be. (p. 281)
Individual entries within the book point at connections between themselves, without overtly having the sense of being linked that we would normally expect the chapters of a book to have. Priest leaves us to make the links ourselves; but, more than having to assemble a set of puzzle-pieces into a coherent picture, more than having an incomplete set of pieces and having to fill in the gaps, in The Islanders we can fill the gaps in many different ways, thereby imagining new connections. Is Character A also Character B? Could Place X be another name for Place Y, and what does that imply if so? Just as the Dream Archipelago is ultimately unmappable, so The Islanders refuses to be understood definitively. It’s a novel which challenges our conceptions of what a novel can tell.
I’m not sure that The Islanders is right up there with the best of Priest’s work for me – it doesn’t give the great shock to the imagination that The Affirmation, The Prestige, and The Separation do – but it’s no less an elegant construction for that. It lulls you in with the measured neutrality of its prose, and the familiar, non-specific modernity of its world; so that those occasions where the narration does break out of its gazetteer-like register, or a properly fantastical notion is introduced, are all the more effective. And, as a novel which embodies its concepts and concerns within its very foundations, The Islanders is a work of art.