I’ve lived and worked on islands and I’ve holidayed on islands and nothing (terribly) sinister has ever befallen me. That’s because, of course, in reality islands are often very nice.
But novelists are not very nice, and fictional islands are pressure cookers, the smaller the hotter. It doesn’t matter if the island in question is lush and tropical or a hunk of rock in an Austrian lake. When there’s nowhere to go but the shore and back and the shore and back, everything is familiar and familiarity breeds resentment. Confrontation – with oneself, neighbours, history, the most sinister offerings of society – becomes impossible to avoid.
Visitors don’t help. Even when they’re not actively causing harm, the most benign tourists carry with them their dreams of the ideal, untroubled life they’d lead if they were lucky enough to live surrounded by water. If you’re a fictional islander, each influx of tourists compounds your claustrophobia.
And if you’re the visitor? That’s also not great. You either end up contemplating the gulf between your dream and reality or – and this is when things really go off the deep end – embracing delusion and living deliriously removed from the mainland of reality.
Below is a list of what might be termed “beach reads”, although they may make you reconsider ever spending time on a beach again.
1. The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun (2013)
A woman working for a tour company that specialises in unholy “dark tourism” packages scopes out the sights on Mui, a small island nation with a devastating history of sinkholes. She gives the experience a “D”. The tour isn’t upsetting enough, the threat of mortal peril isn’t keen enough, for her well-heeled clients to feel the fear and pity they pay for.
But what, asks the manager of a Mui resort, if we could offer something new? What if we could guarantee that this tiny island, full of infamously porous bedrock, were struck by fresh disaster?
2. The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter (1845)
A young man leaves his bucolic home to seek out his uncle, who lives on an isolated Alpine lake island. Once the ferryman departs, his uncle instructs him to drown his beloved Pomeranian if he wants to enter the estate. Otherwise, he’s free to sleep on the rocky ground outside, with nothing to eat or drink and only the towering mountains for company. There’s no way off the island. The mist is rising.
Our hero is stuck. And what’s worse, he’s stuck in a novel by Adalbert Stifter, the writer Kafka referred to as “my fat brother” and who’s gifted with the ability to take scenarios of Biedermeier kitsch and twist them into eerie, singular works of literature.
3. Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine (2011)
In an unnamed middle American city, a young woman picks up a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, an overwhelming obsession is ignited and her life careens off the rails.
No, this book doesn’t physically take place on a small island. But the things that go horribly wrong – hilariously, with the grimacing mania of a silent film – are due to the fact that our narrator decides to live a life modelled on Treasure Island’s Jim Hawkins. As her sister puts it, “You do have trouble distinguishing your reality from whatever happens on Skeleton Island, right?”
4. The Magus by John Fowles (1965)
This dizzying, overwhelming, maddening doorstopper tells the story of a louche young English teacher, Nicholas Urfe, who gets a gig on a Greek island and gets pulled into the dizzying, overwhelming, maddening, mind games of a rich man.
Any time this book is mentioned, it appears in a maelstrom of adjectives … because it is so much, all at once. It’s nasty and virtuosic and upsetting and deeply weird and should be your next beach read if you’re feeling perverse. Or uncomfortably sane.
5. The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace (1979)
The island is Trinidad, but the island-within-an-island is the neighborhood of Calvary Hill, Port of Spain, which this kaleidoscopic novel shows change over the course of 20 years. As carnival draws nearer, excitement builds, but Aldrick Prospect, spurned by the local beauty, starts to feel deep dissatisfaction: with his life, with his limited options, with the tourists that have overtaken and are attempting to sanitize carnival.
Then, outraged by the increasing sadism of the local police force, the citizens of Calvary Hill rise up with an act of resistance whose aftermath underlines the ongoing legacy of slavery and colonialism.
6. The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis (1903)
By the sickbed of her baby granddaughter, an old woman looks back on her life of gruelling poverty and gruesome sexism. In the middle of a sleepless night, she wonders whether infanticide wouldn’t be an act of charity, saving everyone from additional misery. What follows is a murder, and then another, and then another … and then a manhunt across a sun-blistered Aegean island in an odd, furious fable.
7. The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa (1994)
On an unnamed island sunk in perpetual winter, things keep disappearing. After the disappearance of these things – emeralds, birds, roses, all boats and ferries to the mainland – the knowledge of them gently fades from the minds of most of the islanders, except for the unlucky few whose intact memories arouse the wrath of the jackbooted Memory Police. Our protagonist, a novelist, is unburdened by memories, but she learns her beloved editor remembers everything.
8. The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid (1996)
Xuela Claudette Richardson is a woman whose ferocious intelligence is ground into a sharp, observational blade during her troubled upbringing. An African-Caribbean girl growing up on Dominica with a deceased mother and an often absent father, Xuela is all alone as she contends with the racism of her schoolteacher, the murderous jealousy of her stepmother, the sexual abuse of her foster father and resulting pregnancy. Once she reaches adulthood, Xuela rages against everything she can’t escape by choosing relentless self-sufficiency. Kincaid is always brilliant, but this lyrical book might be her most eviscerating.
9. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940)
A convict on the lam decides to hide out on a tropical island rumoured to infect all visitors with a deadly plague. He survives in relative comfort amid the ruins of a museum and chapel and a snake-filled swimming pool, until the island is suddenly and mysteriously filled with tourists. Terrified of being reported to the authorities, he hides in the tidal marshes, growing increasingly deranged, until he falls in love with one of the tourists and inserts himself into their midst.
Jorge Luis Borges loved this slim novel, which is part adventure story, part meditative treatise on death and eternity, part body-horror-infused absurdist comedy.
10. Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson (1965)
This book dispenses with the cheerful antics of the other Moomin books, revealing a molten core of psychological horror. Imagine Winnie-the-Pooh rewritten by Harold Pinter.
Patriarch Moominpappa is revealed to be a feeble dictator, furious his family doesn’t depend on him. Moominmamma decides the best thing is to pack everyone off to a desolate island so her husband can feel vital again. Instead, he rages in his ineptitude, the family starves, the island is haunted and lashed by ceaseless storms, and Moominmamma quite literally retreats into the wallpaper.