Penguin Books, $30.00,
Islands are a potent source of allegorical story-telling. Think of Lord of the Flies, The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe and, more recently, the television series Lost. Penelope Todd’s Island is set in 19th century New Zealand, in a quarantine hospital on an island in a bleak harbour. According to the blurb, it is “literary fiction of the highest quality”, and so I came to it prepared to find layers of meaning and sermons in stones, perhaps things being other than what they seem, and/or some insight into the human condition. It is also, says the blurb, “an intensely romantic page-turner”.
Literary fiction and an intensely romantic page-turner can be an ill-assorted pair. In Island, neither of the two love stories could be described as intensely romantic. Liesel, the 19-year-old nurse heroine, has a rather one-sided relationship with a dying sea captain many years her senior, which seems to be more a product of raging hormones than romantic love. Their opening scene is positively incandescent: she feels “the flame of his person” upon her; her face glows, her throat and cheeks are on fire, her heart pounding. In other scenes, eyes meet and are “torn away”; hands and arms are also snatched away after the briefest touch. “Some bare need drove her at him, and something else like a mother cat snatched her back with scolding teeth.” In another jarring image she longs to “contain all her heart’s eggs in the basket of Captain Swathi”.
The other love story is a slow-flowering attraction between Liesel and Charles/Kahu. He swims to the forbidden island to visit his mother who, unknown to him, has died. In a recent novel, Past Perfect, Karen Zelas explores a similar Maori-Pakeha relationship in 19th-century New Zealand. A nascent trend?
Mrs Martha Pearson, the hospital matron, is a kind of Earth Mother figure who announces to the reader early on that she chose to live on this quarantine station in order “to try life out – raw, natural life, unstrained and uncensored by superstition, force, unnecessary ignorance, or imposed religion”. An interesting Rousseauesque idea – so memorably realised in Lord of the Flies – that is not developed. Towards the end of the novel, however, she realises that the island offers its inhabitants a “strange circumscription” and lacks “the whole panoply of life”. And this is “strange”?
Other notes are struck – such as the strong and healthy leaving the island for a new world; endurance in isolation; fate versus destiny – but no symphony develops. At times it seems it is enough to state that something is so in order to make it so. A harrowingly vivid account of a diphtheria epidemic on the island is described by Matron Pearson as “Merely a pandect of the human state”. The association between the epidemic and a treatise covering the human condition is not clear. The epidemic is described in realistic, authentic detail, the philosophical idea remains as a separate statement.
There is also some confusion about Liesel’s idea of life being a conflict between fate and destiny. Since both terms have a similar connotation, some dictionaries giving one as a synonym for the other, we need to know what distinction is being made between them. For Liesel, what she calls her fate (to stay on the island) is something she chose, but Charles/Kahu says, “You mustn’t call fate what can be changed,” and he reminds her that she defined it differently in an earlier conversation, when she said that “something strong and pitiless” can rise up under what you have planned for your life and upset it. Which does sound rather more like fate upsetting a planned destiny than vice versa.
The opening is a brilliant description of a naked boy swimming in darkness towards the “wedge of darkness that is the island, set between floating and sailing stars”, but the novel then becomes a series of set pieces in search of a theme or deeper significance. There is the death scene, the diphtheria epidemic, the attempted suicide, the sex scene, the dance – all linked by the minor events of daily life in the hospital and nurses’ quarters. All are vividly evoked and some are tenuously related to one or more of the themes, but the framework of the novel is too fragile to support the weight of deep philosophical issues.
Todd is a Dunedin writer who has had several novels for young adults published by Longacre Press, and been shortlisted four times for the New Zealand Post Book Awards. Island is her first adult novel.
Isa Moynihan is a Christchurch writer and reviewer.