Islands of the Mind

On Wednesday I joined three friends for a sunset cruise of Casco Bay. The bay has well over a hundred islands, some habitable, some desolate, all lush and attractive. We speculated on the homes we could see and wondered how long human beings have used these coastal islands as a refuge. Then we were back on the mainland for Irish coffee in a crowded, noisy pub and the whole experience became a pleasant vacation memory.

Until I started my journal the next morning, trying to capture on the page why I liked that boat ride, when it hit me–it’s about islands. Years ago I read for the first time, John Fowles’ The Magus and was hooked. I wrote my thesis on his work and read the book another six or seven times. I read every word I could find by or about Fowles, including his comment somewhere that a novelist should read Homer’s Odyssey every year, in part to understand what Fowles called the enisling quality of a novel. The Magus is, of course, set mainly on a Greek Island but begins in England–another island.

Certainly the mystery stories I consume by the dozens share this quality by housing the cast of characters in a secluded location or a small village. Think of P.D. James and her remote estates and seaside villages. Or Nevada Barr’s remote park ranger settings. The limitation makes, I suspect, the writing more manageable by narrowing the terrain, limiting the population of the story and intensifying the plot by assuring interaction among all the major characters. It’s a form of the part standing for the whole–here’s a microcosm of the world made visible. I just read Sarah Paretsky’s Bleeding Kansas and I’m struck by how small the community is in that book, even though it takes place in Lawrence, Kansas, not a tiny community. And I read Sanjay Gupta’s novle,Monday Morning. His island is the fictional Chelsea General Hospital where surgeons live out their professional lives and bit by bit reveal their personal lives.

And I see now that the novel I am writing is islanded, too. It’s set in a small enclave of survivors far in the future, after cataclysmic climate change has decimated the human population. The more I consider this quality of fiction, the bigger the idea becomes: fairy tales in remote and boundaried kingdoms, any cozy mystery set in some forgotten and quirky village (Louise Penney’s sly references to her fictional village of Three Pines, Quebec, a perfect example), Moby Dick with the restrictions inherent on a small whaler. In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, a main character takes as gospel the words of Robinson Crusoe, one of the major islanders in Western literature.

The pervasive island structure of novels now pops up wherever I look. And with it, the idea of the outsider, the one who comes to the island with little or no understanding of the culture and the ties or divisions among the inhabitants. There’s the deep effect on the human psyche when an off-islander tries to make land uninvited, unwelcomed, and finally accepted, but only after much conflict and change. More about this in the next blog.

2 responses to “Islands of the Mind”

  1. Having grown up on an island (Nahant in Massachusetts Bay) I really appreciated this. It’s true, it had its own culture, and the “outsiders” were a threat (they were not allowed on most of the beaches ;(


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