Some years ago, I judged a book awards, and saw enough badly written/illustrated/edited self-published books to put me off self-published books for life. Mostly, they seemed to consist of authors who had been rejected by traditional publishing. However, I’ve also read enough extraordinary self-published books (e.g. Hugh Howey and Christopher Paolini) to know I shouldn’t tar them all with the same brush.
So I was rather intrigued to stumble across this post some months ago by the established and award-winning author, Nicky Singer, in which she talked about her latest novel, Island, being rejected by her long-term publisher because it was too ‘quiet’, and too ‘literary’. How devastating this must have been for her, knowing that her new novel contained some of her best ever writing.
But Nicky didn’t take the rejection lying down. So strongly did she believe in Ursula Le Guin’s call for freedom in publishing that Nicky decided to crowd-fund the project, which is where I got my hands on it.
The striking cover and illustrations from Chris Riddell make a strong first impression and as soon as I started reading, I knew I was dealing with something special. The book tells the tale of city boy, Cameron, and his reluctant journey to an uninhabited Arctic island with his scientist mother. There he meets Inuit girl, Inuluk, who teaches him about the island and her people’s traditions, myths and beliefs.
The characters are particularly well drawn, each having a very definite back-story and motivation. Their development and arcs are crafted with the expertise of a truly talented and experienced author. The sparse and confined setting of Herschel Island is so vivid and beautiful, I was convinced the author spent some time there but I think this was not the case. It’s a true feat of literature to transport a reader so successfully that we can feel the bite of that Arctic wind, and hear the moan of calving icebergs.
Island still retains the theatrical qualities of where it began – on the stage. It’s evident in the strong dialogue, the small cast, the confined setting, but also in its aspirations to be something bigger than it is. Because, like Cameron’s island dreams, the book reaches far beyond the shores of the Herschel. It reaches into our hearts, asking us to consider our roles and actions and responsibilities towards our fragile planet. ‘When you tread heavily in your world you also tread in ours.’
As well as the strong environmental theme, the reader gets a real sense of the Inuit way of living, their myths and their beliefs. There is also a wonderful twist in the story which is skilfully constructed. The writing is sublime and layered with complexity and emotion. And considering that the book deals with the destruction of the planet and white man’s annihilation of minority tribes like the Inuit, it ends on a surprisingly hopeful note.
Yes, the book is ‘slow’, but in the best possible way. And yes, the book is ‘literary’, but wonderfully so. This is a beautifully written and skilfully crafted book, full of important themes and emotions that young people should be reading about. I applaud Singer for what she has created, but also for the brave publishing route she has chosen.
If you ask me how I feel, having read Island, I’ll answer with two Inuit words, taken from the novel. ILIRA – the fear that accompanies awe, and NUANNAPOQ – the extravagant pleasure of being alive.
Review by Kieran Fanning