The pact we make as readers of fiction is willful suspension of disbelief. In The Islanders, Christopher Priest has come up with new ways to make even that literary pact suspect. As one friend put it, "he's not just screwing with you but with your ontological certainty." Trying to write a thoughtful review of this Rubik's Cube of a book was as difficult as trying to unravel the narrative itself. As I was reading, I kept hearing the Twilight Zone theme song in my head, and I had this low-grade paranoia that the islands I was reading about were much more than they seemed.
Priest is a science fiction author who is widely known for books that play with illusion and unreliability. Like the illusionists in his earlier work The Prestige, Priest is a cunning underminer of assumptions and conditions. The Islanders thrills by throwing you off balance in the same way. It's an icy burn of a read but not a slog. The book is simply told (the prose is quite flat actually), yet complex in concept and structure, full of shifting shadows and smoke and mirrors. Something deep and seismic is going on here. Even now I'm not sure what it is exactly but I know it's there. So don't think too hard when you read this book (though you probably will). When you arrive on the islands, toss out your compass and enjoy the tour.
Wow! I was fully prepared to put this book aside without finishing but, happily, kept at it. Worth the read; Priest manages to turn things around completely towards the end. A slow build to a distinctly satisfying conclusion. His dreaming, often mythic prose reminds me of the work of Italo Calvino.
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