Archive for the ‘island hopping’ Category

Angus Peter Campbell is a Hebridean, born and bred on South Uist. He is a award-winning poet and novelist, who writes both in Gaelic and English.  His most recent novel is the first ever to be published simultaneously in both languages and is set on the island of Mull (though not exclusively). It is woven around a pivotal moment on the ferry from Oban to Mull.

Alasdair crosses Helen’s path on the ferry steps.

“Sorry” I said to her, trying to stand to one side, and she smiled and said, ‘O, don’t worry – I’ll get by.’

Blink and you’d miss it but this moment remains in his head for the rest of his life, as he wonders what might have been if he’d followed through on his instant attraction.  What I found puzzling though is that Alasdair’s life from that moment on isn’t miserable.  He’s not paralysed by the lost opportunity.  His studies are successful, he flourishes when he leaves the island, he marries, and eventually retires to France. Yet there is always a melancholic what if undertone.

Is it the loss of a potentially spectacular love that is being mourned, or the loss of the island lifestyle?

As a young man he plays an active role in the community and he celebrates his friendships.  He becomes a boat-builder’s apprentice and builds a skiff for a middle-age couple who dream of whiling away their retirement on sailing trips.  Life doesn’t turn out that way for them and the boat is left to rot.

Cue diversion – seems that this is the fate of many a boat on Mull.  You could say I went wreck-spotting while there recently.  Here are my top 3 wrecks.

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Flippant as the diversion may be, it’s not irrelevant to a novel that is full of such diversions.  It meanders with stories from Gaelic folklore, celebrations of the Gaelic languages, island tradition and straightforward Scottish humour.

Did you of the Lewis-Man who loved his wife so much he almost told her?

Helen’s story is as important and is told in alternating chapters.  It, too, encompasses loss – most regretfully that of a violin, a family heirloom, stolen at Waverley station.  Yet her life appears more purposeful …

Still 40 years after they first met on the ferry, they meet again and immediately recognise each other. Will this second chance meeting lead to happiness or …. is the path to further loss unavoidable?

I wouldn’t recommend reading this novel for its plot, which at times simply is not credible.  It spans two separate lives over a period of 40 years in just under 200 pages, so perhaps I should say it condenses.  There’s a lot of telling, not showing.  It’s hard to get emotionally involved. And yet, I will remember the beautiful prose describing the island landscape and the honesty of its language and its culture (and the metaphoric rotting boat).

I remember Aamer Hussein once bemoaning the criticism given to the quietness of his novels.  They contain a wealth of emotional drama, he said. The same is true here but the style is far too undramatic for me.


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Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy influenced my reading more than anything else last year.  From the minute I finished the second title, my cravings for part three began. To distract myself I went on a reader’s island hop round the globe. Accumulated a goodly number of air miles too!

(2990) From the Isle of Lewis to the fictional island of Skios
(1557) From Skios to Venice
(490)To Sardinia
(5854) To Java
(4727) To New Zealand
(5600) New Zealand to Samoa
(7295) Then to an unspecified location in the Caribbean where I was shipwrecked for a while.
(8220) Rescued finally by January in Japan
(6806) To bring me back to the Isle of Lewis.

By my reckoning that’s 43,539 airmiles, just to end up back where I started. Was it worth it?

Well, there is the weather on the Isle of Lewis but the atmospheric landscape more than makes up for that.

The sight that greeted him was almost supernatural. The mountains of south-west Lewis rose up steeply all around, disappearing into the obscurity of low clouds. The valley below seemed wider than it had by the lightning of the night before. The giants shards of rock that littered its floor grew like spectres out of a mist that rolled up from the East, where a not yet visible sun cast an unnaturally red glow.

This leads us straight into the mystery of the disappearing loch.

 Then he turned back to the valley. But there was no loch. Just a big empty hole … A mile long, half a mile across, and fifty or sixty feet deep.

A bog burst – the thought of all that water simply sliding away to another destination terrifies me. The discovery of a small plane with corpse on the bed of the one-time loch chills me further particularly when I start to think about the moments the plane is going down. Moving swiftly on …

The grisly discovery is made by Fin Macleod and the confidante of his teenage years, wild man Whistler Macaskill. Assumptions are made about the identity of the body in the plane and this brings back many of Fin’s former friends for the funeral – including a past love. Many old tensions and rivalries bubble right back to the surface … with developments turning ever more sinister. Fortunately the Lewis Chessmen are on hand to help.

So far, so good but the underlying strength of May’s trilogy lies not in the murderous plots but in the complicated human transactions that form the stuff of life. Fin’s now living with his childhood sweetheart, Marsaili, but they cannot recreate what they had in the years before his selfishness wrecked their romance. Whistler is estranged from his rebellious teenage daughter (the most vivid character study of the piece). Cantankerous Donald, the Free Church minister, while not facing a legal trial, must answer to an ecclesiastical panel for his shooting of a gangster in The Lewis Man

The present is always haunted by the past and while atonement and redemption are hoped for, they are not always possible. Neither can consequences be avoided. It’s a question of whether the characters can – or even whether the author will let them – live with the outcomes. (Question to author – ARC p 378 How could you?)

Fin’s future on the island will be as coloured by these events as his present was coloured by the events of his teenage years. Only he’s now sadder and wiser and worse still, middle-aged. This is no trilogy with the hero walking off into a glorious sunset but he may, just may, be able to set some matters straight.


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It was the opening session of 2012 for me and I was full of the joys of Charlotte Square. Then Andrew Motion turns all existential, predicting humankind’s demise within the next 200 years. What brought on this gloom? The research into his next book which led him to the realities concerning the extinction of the bison in America. I’m sorry, he said, but that’s what I believe.

Sarah Crown and Andrew Motion courtesy of @edbookfest

So what’s the point of literature?, asked chairperson Sarah Crown, in a moment of brilliance, pulling us right back to the purpose of the afternoon. To remember what we have lost, to celebrate what we have and to warn us about the dangers of the future, replied Motion.

One could add to eat, drink and have fun for in 200 years we die because that is what Motion does in Silver, his sequel to Treasure Island, a novel he thought about for 20 years before writing. He didn’t want to fall into the perils of the failed sequel, he said, by staying too close to the original and thus putting himself in competition with the original, a competition he was bound to lose. For this reason he moved the story forward a generation into a post French revolution world where sensibilities are much changed and Long John Silver is a decrepit old husk who sends his daughter Nattie on a voyage with Jim Hawkins II (the son of Stevenson’s Jim) to find the silver that was left behind.

This change allows Motion to retain many elements of the original (the treasure hunt), to play with others (Long John Silver’s parrot has died but there is a new bird named Spot, the open ending
– a literal cliffhanger) and to insert an entirely new political subplot (slavery). He pays homage to Stevenson, though at the same time ensuring that this sequel remains his own. He gives Stevenson a cameo role, as the lookout. For most of the voyage the character inhabits the crow’s nest of the ship, retaining an overview of proceedings. But once the ship approached the island, Mr Stevenson is brought down on deck. The underlying message, Motion said, is that this is my island, not Stevenson’s.

The big question: Is the book any good?

It is a good read, which stands up well even when read immediately after a revelatory first (!) reading of Treasure Island. The prose is more descriptive and reflective than the original – an indicator of Jim Hawkins II and, therefore, Motion’s interest in the natural world. Jim Hawkins II, c’est moi, said Motion. The ending though is a disappointment, just like the EIBF event which saw Motion rushing off to catch a train rather than stay for a book signing.  (Boo)  Surely an author can be kinder to his characters (and audience) than that? I won’t give away the ending of the novel here, though Motion did at his event.  Suffice to say it takes us right back to his gloomy predictions for mankind.  Literal cliffhanger aside (I like that touch), I deducted a full star from my final rating. 

Relevant section of the EIBF Mindmap

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Now I was hoping that my fictional island hopping tour would meet up with real life at one point.  But, when I went to Tenerife a few weeks ago, I couldn’t find anything set there that I fancied reading.

However, when I got back I found a whole suite of poems by Baby Grace, someone who has obviously holidayed in the same resort as I did:  the champagne breakfast spread, the desperate retreat from sun-bathing boredom that is participation in water aerobics, and the obligatory hike up Mount Teide.  Forgive the pun, but this visit to the highest point in Spain really was the highlight of the trip for me.  So I’m quoting her poem in full together with a picture of me doing my best young lady of Firle impression.

Going up Teide

I have a mountain to climb,
a caldera to traverse:
magma strewn, lava sown.
I wish the Devil would stretch down to hoist me from this scree.

I burn in the light
no grassblade or lichen grows
a dead volcano

The Devil stole the sun,
until the sky god Chaman
heard the beggars’ play
and scattered the ash
on the National Park.


July’s Poetry Event is hosted by Kelly.

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Translated from German by John Brownjohn

Inevitably my island-hopping expedition brings me to the most famous fictional island of them all. Or is it? Fictional, I mean.

It’s 12 July 2004 and the Swiss author, Alex Capus, has taken his family for a holiday in Samoa, the island in the South Pacific where Robert Louis Stevenson spent the last five years of his life. Capus’s mission is to prove that Treasure Island actually exists, albeit not in the place that the treasure-hunters have been seeking it for generations. The resultant book Sailing by Starlight – In Search of Treasure Island is a slim one, packed with facts and theories supporting Capus’s argument that Stevenson’s island is not located in the Caribbean where those of the Pirates of the Caribbean generation (myself included) would automatically locate it. Nor is Treasure Island, the exotically named Cocos Island, to the east of Costa Rica, where in 1821 Captain Thompson, an honest man whose head was turned by the wealth that was entrusted to him for safe keeping,  allegedly buried  priceless ecclesiastical treasures from Lima Cathedral.  Through the history of the Cocos Island and the experiences of August Gissler, a German who spent 19 years of his life systematically digging up the island inch by inch,  Capus shows that the treasure, which was real enough, could not have been buried there.  The question is where is it?

The clue Capus argues lies with Robert Louis Stevenson’s seemingly snap decision to locate to Samoa and to stay there despite the fact that the climate was detrimental to his tubercular health.  The attraction, according to Capus, its close vicinity to a second island, formerly known as Cocos.  All that effort off the coast of Costa Rica was misdirected due to a simple case of mistaken identity!

Now I can’t say whether Capus is right, and nor can he, because by the time he had pieced together his thesis, Royal Tonga Airlines had gone bankrupt and he couldn’t reach his ultimate destination.   The argument or conjecture (as Capus calls it) stitched together with pieces of Stevenson’s life, general pirateering and treasure-hunting history (some stranger than the strangest fiction),  and clues from the plot of Treasure Island itself spins a mighty fine yarn. One of which Stevenson himself would approve.

I like biography far better than fiction myself; fiction is too free.  In biography you have your little handful of facts, like bits of a puzzle, and you sit down and fit ’em together this way and that, and get up and throw ’em down, and say damn, and go out for a walk.  And it’s real soothing’ and when done, gives an idea of finish to the writer that is very peaceful.  Of course, it’s not really so finished as quite a rotten novel; it always has and always must have the incurable illogicalities of life about it, the fathoms of slack and the miles of circuitous tedium.  Still, that’s where the fun comes in” (Robert Louis Stevenson to Sir Edmund Goss, 18 June 1893)

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First there was the film – Dutch with English subtitles – and then there was the novel. It’s what happens when a script writer and producer creates a successful film and sees the potential to improve it by penning a more successful novel.  That’s said with hindsight, because, of course I read the book first.  Though given the way the book is fleshed out, I wish I’d done it in the sequence the two were created.

The Novel

Bride Flight (the novel) is an absorbing epic telling the story of three women who fled from post-WWII Holland to find new lives with their fiancés who were waiting for them in New Zealand.  Three women, cast from very different moulds, flying around the globe to marry three very different men and three very different futures.  On the flight (coincidentally the last great London-Christchurch air race of 1953) they meet Frank, a bachelor, who is to play a crucial role in the lives of all three.

The novel begins with the three women, now in their old age and no longer in contact with one another, receiving invitations to Frank’s funeral. They all decide to attend.  As they travel to Frank’s vineyard,  they reminisce on their experiences and the secrets of the past begin to emerge.  It becomes obvious that this reunion is highly-charged.  The question is whether it will spiral out of control or will they reconcile?

I found their characters and stories, and the portrayal of the values and attitudes of a bygone era absolutely authentic.  I’m not going to go into detail for fear of spoilers.  I will say that the future held many surprises for all concerned and their lives in New Zealand were not necessarily better than those they left behind in Holland.  450 pages simply  *** flew by *** (apologies, I couldn’t resist that).  Good storytelling and a seamless translation.  I was particularly gratified to learn that Lanarkshire is not the wettest place on earth – Greymouth on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island has that honour.  I will also say, at the risk of stereotyping, that this is more likely to appeal to female readers.

Was there anything that bothered me?  I do get annoyed with books that portray the most devout character as the most miserable.  But given that this man’s family was wiped out in the North Sea Flood of 1953, I suppose he had plenty to be miserable about.   I found his other inadequacies a trifle exaggerated.  Still it made for good drama.

After reading the novel, the film felt hurried. In transforming the story from film to novel, the author changed, as far as I can tell, only one plot detail and even then it was simply a matter of timing. Certainly the scene was more dramatic in the film, but it wouldn’t have happened like that in real life.  The book felt more real.  I have to say, though, that the landscape of New Zealand looked absolutely glorious.

This post is part of Dutch Literature Month 2012, hosted by Iris On Books.

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It’s Dutch Literature Month and serendipitously, Iris of IrisonBooks and I discovered that we  were both reading  Louis Couperus’s The Hidden Force.  We then decided to discuss it together.  Well, you know what happens when two book bloggers get together to discuss books. It could take a while, particularly when the topic for discussion is a multi-layered narrative such as this!

Firstly, a plot summary, courtesy of www.collider.com. (Does anyone know when the film will be released?)

In The Hidden Force the decline and fall of the Dutch resident Van Oudijck is caused by his inability to see further than his own Western rationalism. He is blind and deaf to the slumbering powers of the East Indian people and countryside. The black magic, bird calls, vegetation, heat and the mysterious, hostile attitude of their Javanese subjects prove stronger than the cool power of the colonials. A novel written in 1900 and set in the Dutch East Indies. It concerns a colonial official who is undone by his wilful application of reason to a culture that is steeped in the mystical and irrational.

We start our discussion by explaining the reasons we picked the book up in the first place and whether it lived up to our expectations.

Lizzy: This harks back to my student past – 2 years of studying Dutch language and literature. If asked which were my favourite Dutch novels, I would reply The Darkroom of Damocles and The Hidden Force.  I’ve already reviewed Damocles on my blog.  Couperus’s time had arrived.  Unfortunately it didn’t live up to expectations.  Excellent still but not as great as I remembered.  I suspect this was due to  Alexander Teixeira de Mattos’s 1922 translation , edited and revised by E.M Beekman in 1985.  I had no problems with the English. I was more disturbed by the multitudes of unfamiliar Javanese and Malaysian words sown within the  text.   While there was an appendix , I would have preferred the explanations to have appeared as footnotes on the same page.  It would have made the reading much more fluid.  The constant back-and-forth to the glossary annoyed me.

Iris: I had wanted to read another book by Couperus last year (after having read Eline Vere in high school) but I ran out of time. And so when I decided to do another Dutch Lit Month this year, I knew I wanted to make an effort to read Couperus this time around. I also knew my choice would be The Hidden Force, since it is one of those famous fictional works concerned with Dutch colonialism. I felt it would make a great fit in between last year’s reading of Max Havelaar and this year’s readalong of The Tea Lords. I was especially interested to see how Couperus would handle the idea of Javanese resistance to colonialism through ‘a hidden force’.

I had expected Couperus to be somewhat difficult to read with his long, winding sentences. I should also have realised that like so many Dutch authors who wrote about the Dutch East Indies there would be a lot of Malaysian and Javanese words. And yet I struggled with both. Perhaps this was because in the midst of these two phenomena, the story did not manage to capture me as I much as I had hoped. I found that the story was obscured by the prose at times. I read a Dutch version of this book, which like yours translated the Malaysian words in an appendix at the back of the book (and I suspect some words were missing – at least I couldn’t find all of them),  This did not help to retain the flow of the story.

I thought it was interesting that the English translation available on the Gutenberg Project features a translator’s note stating that he chose to get rid of “nearly all the Malay and Javanese words scattered through the text”, since “the sense of colour throughout the book is strong enough without insisting on these native terms.”

Lizzy:  I wish I’d known that.  This could have been my very first  e-book read!   Now here’s a surprise , the Project Gutenberg edition is Alexander Teixeira de Mattos’s original  1922  translation, one which Beekman points out is inaccurate whether translating from Dutch or Javanese. It also omits some of the more controversial passages.

Iris: But do you agree with de Mattos’s assessment of the Malaysian words in the text and the sense of setting the text evokes? I ask because it seems almost every author opts to use Malaysian in texts about the Dutch East Indies. I always suppose this to be because they think it lends more credibility to the setting.

Lizzy:  Do I agree with a flawed  translator  or an  academically-minded and more accurate editor?  Actually with the former even if he deviated  from Couperus’s original style.  Beekman does acknowledge that de Mattos preserves the tone and the archaic diction of the original and in so doing, remains true to Couperus’s intent and mood.  And that, in my opinion, is  more  successful without all the foreign words, which I find both pretentious and alienating. Couperus didn’t need to use them, but as he had  been brought up in the Dutch East Indies, they probably came naturally . I wonder if  the assumption of Dutch authors  is  that  Javanese words are still familiar to their audience?

Iris: I had not realised de Mattos’s translation is considered flawed. It seems this is a choice between various “evils” then, as I imagine the “archaic prose”, as Beekman calls it, might be an essential part of the feel of the original work as well. I also wonder if authors consider Javanese or Malaysian words to be shared by the Dutch readers. I know they appeared in missionary reports at the time, so perhaps around 1900 the audience for which these works were meant did know something of these languages. Or perhaps it just comes so naturally to  those who have been in the Dutch Indies that they cannot imagine a work set there without it.

Given your criticisms, I am curious what made you like The Hidden Force so much first time around? Was this experience completely different or was the only difference reading it in English instead of Dutch?

Lizzy:  What a question!  It must be 30-something years since I read it.  I don’t even remember whether I read it in Dutch or in English.  Given my previous comments, I suspect it was a hard-copy of what is now the Gutenberg edition – the one without the foreign words.  I’m a more patient reader now.  The young Lizzy would never have persevered with the back and forth to the glossary.  It just goes to show what a difference a translation can make.

By the way, Pushkin Press will release a new translation by Paul Vincent in the autumn.  It will be interesting to see how they approach this obviously difficult question.

Right, I feel happier now I’ve got that off my chest.  Shall we move on and focus on the positive?

(Indeed we shall, tomorrow,  on Iris’s blog when we consider if The Hidden Force is a masterpiece.)

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