Christopher Priest’s work has given me some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, so I opened The Islanders – his first novel in nine years – with no small amount of anticipation. For this book, Priest returns to the world of the Dream Archipelago, setting for a number of short stories and, in part, 1981’s The Affirmation (rest assured that The Islanders stands alone, though readers of the earlier works will recognise a few names and concepts). The Dream Archipelago is a great, world-spanning array of islands; a neutral zone between two countries at war. What we’re presented with in the pages of Priest’s book is ostensibly a gazetteer of some of these islands; but, as well as the standard geographical information one would expect, some of its entries comprise narratives or other sorts of text.
Who (within the context of the fiction) wrote and compiled these entries is uncertain; but the gazetteer’s introduction is credited to one Chaster Kammeston, an Archipeligan native and celebrated writer in the world of the book. Not that Kammeston is convinced that the volume he’s introducing will be of much use, as actually mapping and navigating the Archipelago are nigh on impossible: partly because there are so many different naming conventions for the same geographical features (the ones that actually have names, at least); and partly because of the naturally-occurring “temporal vortices” which distort one’s very perception of the world. Kammeston is even unsure whether he’s the right person to be writing an introduction to a work about the vast expanses of the Archpelago, given that, as he says, “I have never stepped off the island [of my birth], and I expect never to do so before I die.” (p. 1).
But something is not quite right, here. We meet Chaster Kammeston again in the entries of the gazetteer itself; and, if we can believe what we read there, not only has he willingly left his home island several times, he is also dead – yet there he is, alive to write an introduction, apparently after the book has been compiled. Kammeston’s is just one story woven through The Islanders; other characters (many of them artists and thinkers of one kind or another) and events recur: the mime Commis is murdered in a theatre when a sheet of glass is dropped on him from above – but maybe the identity of his killer is not as cut-and-dried as it first appeared; Jordenn Yo travels the Archipelago, creating art installations by tunnelling through islands (presumably that’s what landed her in prison); we may never meet the painter Dryd Bathurst properly ‘in person’, as it were, but we hear enough about him to piece together an impression of who he is and what he might have done.
That last comment points towards a key aspect of The Islanders: namely, that its very structure forces us to construct its story (or stories) for ourselves. This is more than just a simple matter of chapters being arranged out of chronological order; as Adam Roberts notes, the novel itself can be seen as an archipelago, with each chapter an ‘island’ of narrative. Formally, Priest’s novel embodies something of what it suggests about island life:
Islands gave an underlying feeling of circularity, of coast, a limit to what you could achieve or where you might go. You knew where you were but there was invariably a sense that there were other islands, other places to be. (p. 281)
Individual entries within the book point at connections between themselves, without overtly having the sense of being linked that we would normally expect the chapters of a book to have. Priest leaves us to make the links ourselves; but, more than having to assemble a set of puzzle-pieces into a coherent picture, more than having an incomplete set of pieces and having to fill in the gaps, in The Islanders we can fill the gaps in many different ways, thereby imagining new connections. Is Character A also Character B? Could Place X be another name for Place Y, and what does that imply if so? Just as the Dream Archipelago is ultimately unmappable, so The Islanders refuses to be understood definitively. It’s a novel which challenges our conceptions of what a novel can tell.
I’m not sure that The Islanders is right up there with the best of Priest’s work for me – it doesn’t give the great shock to the imagination that The Affirmation, The Prestige, and The Separation do – but it’s no less an elegant construction for that. It lulls you in with the measured neutrality of its prose, and the familiar, non-specific modernity of its world; so that those occasions where the narration does break out of its gazetteer-like register, or a properly fantastical notion is introduced, are all the more effective. And, as a novel which embodies its concepts and concerns within its very foundations, The Islanders is a work of art.