genre stuff reading pile

Christopher Priest – The Islanders

Christopher Priest is an illusionist. If you have read some of his previous novels, you will know to expect to have the rug pulled from under your feet. You will know that the people you see on the page aren’t who you expect them to be or, if they are, they will be more slippery than Michael Gove’s bottom lip.

Entering the Dream Archipelago, Priest’s heady collection of microcosms and forgotten places, was a welcome treat for a fan. And for fans, there are Easter eggs galore: take the presence of writer, Moylita Kaine, whose first manifestation in The Islanders comes as a writer of fan letters to another novelist. We read about her first efforts to become a writer, and that she has finally written a novel, called The Affirmation.

The Affirmation? I thought to myself. Priest wrote a novel called The Affirmation, of course, but I did a little digging. I recalled a short story, ‘The Negation’ (1978) which was first included in a rare collection called The Infinite Summer, and then later the Dream Archipelago book. ‘The Negation’ featured Moylita Kaine as an established novelist. In The Islanders, she crops up again several times, and also (I think) the character with whom she interacted in ‘The Negation’, a minor finale playing out decades later. These connections between books and time will please many of those who have read a lot of Priest’s output: they’re not explicit, they’re elegant inclusions, all part of Priest’s dreamscape.

But back to The Islanders.

There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least, there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.

Chaster Kammeston, a novelist who will make an appearance later in the novel, explains this in his introduction. The book is presented as non-fiction, a strange collection of tales or accounts, letters, confessions and so on, from the Islanders of the Dream Archipelago. Nothing is certain, as the reader is plunged into mock-travel guide accounts of the many (and there are indeed many) islands that make up the Archipelago. Mixing the island names and patois, the reader is given time to absorb Priest’s fragile reality.

It seems an odd way to go about presenting a novel – if indeed by now it seems a novel – when suddenly the plot appears in an unconventional, non-fiction manner. Characters are reappearing in others’ accounts. Events begin to match up, overlap, contradict each other. Subtleties become extremely important: or, if you’re a Priest fan, possible further deceptions. The reading experience is extraordinary. It’s like a magic eye puzzle: the closer you are to the text, the less you might see. You must be vaguely passive, absorbing the shapes within, to see anything of note (and even then you might be deceived), and yet remain at all times alert. Adam Roberts, in his splendid review, discusses the phrase ‘Ergodic literature’ with reference to reading the novel.

The central plot? That depends on both what you mean by ‘central’ and ‘plot’. Certainly some of the key narratives include: a murder of Commis, a professional mime artist, and those who were involved in and around the theatre at the time, their stories before and thereafter; a radical social thinker, Caurer, and her relationship with literary sensation Chaster Kammeston, his reputation and his death (note: he wrote the introduction to the novel); add to that a famous debauched painter, Dryd Bathurst, a creative tunnelling artist, those who seek to map islands with drones, those interested in the spurious trial of the man executed for supposedly murdering Commis; and keep in mind that all of these and many more micro-narratives connect or glance off each other in all sorts of subtle ways. Ultimately you begin to wonder what the plots actually are, if indeed there are any, or if it is all a vast, blissful game in a setting comprised of multiple cultures, topographies, economies and currencies.

I should also stress some of the beauty here. Priest has always written in a minimalist, deliberately mannered and very English style, which serves his fiction perfectly, because it does not get in the way of the underground complexities. Often, some of the above narratives are heartbreaking, mesmerising, or achingly tender in places. This is certainly his most refined prose.

Ultimately, it is a remarkable book that seems to be a logical continuation, even summation, of all of Priest’s themes to date. What’s more, all of this literary playfulness does not detract from the fact that it is a wonderful, entertaining novel.

It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a reading experience this much.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

12 replies on “Christopher Priest – The Islanders”

I love Priest, and would have several erudite and intellectual things to say about this review, but unfortunately I have to get this off my chest first:

“more slippery than Michael Gove’s bottom lip” – ughhhh! You’ve put me off my coffee there.

Seriously, this is a good review, and really makes me want to read more of his books – I got into him when the film of The Prestige came out, and have read that and a few of the more popular of his other books. Any in particular of his others you’d recommend other than this one? Any to avoid or are they all worth a punt?

Glad you appreciated the Gove line!

My favourites, for varying reasons, are The Glamour (first time I was tricked so thoroughly by an author) and Fugue for a Darkening Island (which I think Gollancz are reissuing?). Which have you read so far?

I realize this is the same Christopher Priest that wrote “The inverted world” in the seventies, which was a great book! A famous first sentence : “I had reached the age of 650 miles”. I haven’t read it for ages but I think it could fit in the “weird” books category.
I can’t understand why I let this author fall out of my sight. I’ll make sure to read this one – and the others in between.

Yes, there’s something weird about his books, but not in the obvious sense. They’re subtle and unsettling; he’s very much in a category (and league) of his own. As it happens, I think The Inverted World is the only one of his I’ve not yet read!

Woah, dude – new-look blog! I like it, very swish!

Book sounds pretty cool. Cheers for the recommendation. Wasn’t hugely into The Prestige – only other Priest novel I’ve read – but I’ll give this a go.

Thanks! Very happy with this one. Much more 2011.

Yeah, the Dream Archipelago stuff is very different to his other books. Worth picking up the Dream Archipelago collection first, before this – just to get the full experience. I think you’ll like this – and, even though it’s full of literary hijinks, it’s full of wonderful writing.

I’ve followed Christopher Priest from the beginning, and I’ve always enjoyed the way he takes reality and give it a little twist. A Dream of Wessex is one I’m particularly fond of from that period.

One of his that gets forgotten is The Space Machine, which blends The Time Machine and the War of the Worlds and is just great fun as rattling good yard.

It’s good to see he’s still on form, and I’m waiting for Amazon to do the decent thing and drop his latest through the letterbox.

I read the Islanders around 6 months back and I read it in quick bursts. It stuck in my head like a tune that does not go away. I would experience epiphanies all of a sudden that connected two seemingly different stories. The second read was the headiest sensation I experienced in a while. A brilliant tale.

Comments are closed.