The novel “The Islanders” by Christopher Priest was published for first the first time in 2011. It won the BSFA and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award as the best novel of the year. It’s part of the Dream Archipelago series.
The Dream Archipelago includes a large number of islands scattered across a vast territory, so much that the term archipelago is actually improper. The islands form a kind of federation that is neutral in the ongoing war but those regularly inhabited retain a large degree of autonomy.
Within the Dream Archipelago there are groups of islands with strong bonds, others are practically uninhabited and in the inhabited ones there are many languages and cultures. You can see these differences also in various arts but tragic events such as the murder of an artist can be difficult to investigate when there are involved people from different islands with different cultures and languages.
“The Islanders” is classified as a novel but this term is to be meant in a very broad sense because Christopher Priest doesn’t use a linear narrative. The book is written in the form of a guide to the Dream Archipelago that describes the most important islands. With the excuse of offering useful information to tourists, the author also develops stories that are typically related to local artists.
Initially, this approach can give the impression of an anthology of short stories but soon the reader starts seeing the connections among various stories and the involvement of a person in the stories of various islands. In some ways, the novel itself is an archipelago in which a single island can represent a piece of a larger story. It’s a mosaic where the combined pieces show larger images.
In the end, “The Islanders” tells stories about various artists that sometimes get intertwined. The main story is about the assassination of the artist known as Commis, which begins as a case apparently quickly solved with the conviction of the perpetrator but turns out to be much more complex.
Commis’ murder involves people from different islands with the consequence that new parts of the story are told in the course of the novel that allow to progressively figure out what happened. These tales are neither linear nor chronological, so the reader must pay attention to put the various pieces together.
Other stories told in “The Islanders” are less fragmented but in any case the reader has to keep in mind their protagonists’ names to recognize them when they reappear on another island. The various stories fragments are narrated from various points of view, sometimes in the first person by an eyewitness and sometimes by an external narrator. This allows to develop some characters but makes more difficult to understand their stories.
Sometimes there’s an unreliable narrator when a testimony is spoiled by inaccuracies that may be due to various reasons. The consequence is that each new fragment of a story can clarify certain points but in some cases may have the opposite effect. In some cases, a character’s statements can offer more information about him/her than about his/her role in a story.
“The Islanders” forms a overall portrait that’s self-contained but one of the tales also refers to the story told in “The Affirmation“. That novel is set in part in our world and in part in the world of the Dream Archipelago, leaving doubts about the truth. In both books Christopher Priest seems to want the reader to decide about the truth.
Christopher Priest’s unconventional choice makes “The Islanders” intriguing to read but undoubtedly complex. The book becomes almost a jigsaw puzzle in which readers try to find the right place for each piece but even at the end can’t be certain they solved it because the pieces don’t always fit in with precision.
For its characteristics, “The Islanders” is a book that can require multiple readings for readers to make their final opinion about it, which is not necessarily clear. This is another reason why I recommend it to those who appreciate stories with unconventional structures.