On Islands

Stories of survival and cruelty are often set on an island, in books such as Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies and on television shows like Lost. The titles below take the island as a narrative constraint: a limited setting that unleashes the authors’—and characters’—imaginations. The islands’ inhabitants perform multiple roles (as ghosts, metaphors, and figments of their isolated protagonists’ minds); the ambiguous element of fantasy is what makes these four books compelling reads.

Spring Tides by Jacques Poulin

In this odd book by Quebecois novelist Poulin, the protagonist, Teddy Bear, lives alone on an island in the St. Lawrence River, where he spends his days translating comic strips into French. His boss regularly arrives by helicopter to pick up the comics for publication and to drop off provisions, but he soon starts to deliver people as well: his own wife, a girl and her cat, an “Ordinary Man,” an “Organizer,” and an “Author.” In an ending that can be read as either happy or horrific, the crowd of castaways forces Teddy off the island, into the swift current of the river, which sweeps him off to a new life.

W, or the Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec

Perec’s volume contains two tales. The first is the story of the fictional island society of W, the lives of whose inhabitants revolve around Olympic-style competitions. The contests can be won or lost either on merit or through the vindictiveness of the bored officials who change the elaborate rules at the last minute. The second is the story of Perec’s childhood, which begins, “I have no childhood memories.” He then gives us what seem like memories, followed by researched refutations and the admission that they all may be made up. His ambivalence is due in part to the fact that there are few witnesses who can verify his memoir’s accuracy: His father was a soldier who died during the fall of France in 1940, and his mother died at Auschwitz. Although on the surface Perec’s two stories appear unrelated, the parallels between the systematic cruelty of W and that of the Nazi camps provide a tenuous but devastating point of contact.

Island People by Coleman Dowell

In Dowell’s 1976 novel, an isolated author is holed up in his island home. He soon finds that his writing (both his fiction and his journals) is being hijacked by one of his characters. These two competing voices are joined by a cacophony of narrators and other actors, including friends, lovers, and ghosts. Despite this crowd, the book is marked by an uncanny inwardness, mirroring the eerie isolation of the island culture the author has chosen over the “mainland of life.” Dowell was inspired by the Emily Dickinson lines “One need not be a chamber to be haunted / One need not be a, house”; his myriad narrators represent what she phrased as “Ourself behind ourself concealed.”

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

When our hero was told by a rug seller in Calcutta, “There is only one possible place for a fugitive like you—it is an uninhabited island, but a human being cannot live there,” he felt compelled to seek it out. At the start of the novel, we see him starving in the island’s tidal marshes, hiding from the dandies and flappers who have mysteriously appeared. Gradually, our fugitive begins to notice odd things about his fellow islanders: They seem to leave no trace, they’re indifferent to his presence, and they have conversations that they eerily repeat in an “atrocious eternal return.” To describe further would spoil the suspense—let’s just say that this fable matches the narrative dexterity of Bioy Casares’s countryman Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote the introduction for this surprising book.

Lisa Darms is senior archivist at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University.