Island Novels

Setting a novel on an island allows the writer to use a dramatic device, limited physical range for their characters. Their characters must respond to the boundaries created by the sea, and they are usually trapped with whoever else might be on the island. Here are a few novels that have used an island setting.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss

265 Night Waking

Anna Bennet and her husband and two children are spending the summer on a St Kilda-like island. With a young child she is suffering from lack of sleep, and from lack of time to finish her book, connected to her fellowship at Oxford. Her husband counts puffins and seems unaware of her struggles.

A skeleton of a baby is discovered near their house and Anna spends some time checking the history of the island, its inhabitants and absentee landowners. A parcel of letters is found in the chimney from a young woman in Victorian times who tried to bring better birthing practices to the island’s inhabitants.

By the end of the novel Anna has moved into relative freedom from her children and recommitted to her marriage. She has helped a family who have come as trial guests to the holiday home on the island and decided that her older son needs a little help with his rather bizarre fixation on death and catastrophe.

Written in the first person, the narrator seems quite mad at times, and as if ghosts are about to intrude. In the end these are revealed to be functions of sleep deprivation, as the title indicates.

Night Waking by Sarah Moss, published by Granta in 2011.

Sarah Moss has a new novel, The Tidal Zone, published in July by Granta.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

265 Snow Falling

A Japanese-American fisherman is on trial for the murder of a German-American fisherman on the island of San Piedro off the north west coast of America. Tensions are high. There is a snow storm that further limits the characters. There is a long history of family arguments about land, and of ancient love affairs. The story unfolds, revealing some racism, some old fashioned liberalism, a great deal of loss and some huge misunderstandings and disappointments. All is more or less resolved.

I found that there were too many long back-stories of some less significant characters, almost as if Guterson had included the outcomes of activities suggested in a creative writing workshop for knowing the characters. The writing is superb, however.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, published by Bloomsbury in 1994. 404pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Although the story is set on the island of Skye, much of this novel does not really fit my theme, but it needs no excuse to be recommended yet again. The model for the holiday was in fact Cornwall, the location of the Stephen family’s annual summer holidays.

Before the First World War the Ramsay family is on holiday on Skye. The plan to go to the lighthouse the next day is jeopardised by the weather. The family and house guests go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party. Ten years go by, and the house is neglected. There are deaths and a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe. Many of the original house party return to Skye. Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse. This is a novel to be read not for the story but for the evocation of impressions, responses, and insights of her characters.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf published in 1927 by the Hogarth Press.

And …

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

This one is from the older women in fiction series. It’s partly a meditation on a grandmother-granddaughter relationship, but also a dreamy rendition of summers spent on an island on the Finnish coast. I’m not even sure if it’s counted as fiction, but it is a moving book.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, published in 2003 by Sort of Books. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

80 Summer Bk cover

Shipping News E Annie Proulx

Another great novel, where every character has limitations, and every character is challenged by the rugged conditions of Newfoundland, the weather, and the events of their own life. The island keeps the community together.

Shipping News E Annie Proulx (1993). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the US National Book award. An excellent film was made of this book.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)

Winner Man Booker Prize 2015

Being a prize winning novel that is set in Jamaica, but is neither brief or about only seven killings.

Over to you …

265 The LeopardWhat other novels are there? Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, set in Sicily.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Virginia Woolf

17 Responses to Island Novels

  1. Adrienne Vaughan has written a series of Irish Romances set on a fictional west coast of Ireland island which are very good.

  2. Great theme for these mini reviews, Caroline. Can’t let it go without mentioning Andrea Levy’s Small Island, although neither island to which the title refers is as small as those in the novels you’ve reviewed here. Island by Jane Rogers would fit perfectly, however, as it’s set on a small Scottish island.

    • Caroline

      Ah thank you Anne. I knew I had missed some obvious ones, and Andrea Levy’s Small Island is such a good read.
      I don’t know the Jane Rogers, but perhaps i should explore her writing.

  3. That’s a nice list of books – the Woolf, Jansson and Lampedusa alone are wonderful reads! Of course, there’s always Enid Blyton…. 😉

    • Caroline

      The island aspect of Enid Blyton’s boos has not remained in my memory, so I think i won’t bother following those up. But you are right, there are some wonderful novels on this list.
      Thanks for the comment.

  4. Jennifer

    The Summer Book is one of my favourites. I love the grumpy grandmother. She would fit in too with the ‘Older Woman’ group.

    • Caroline

      I think you may have been the person who first recommended The Summer Book to me. With your own grandmother activities it wouldn’t surprise me.

  5. Catriona Troth

    Both Peter May’s Lewis Man trilogy and his Entry Island make powerful use of their (different) island settings. As does Joanne Harris’s Coastliners. And I have to mention my colleague Gillian Hamer, who sets all her books on Anglesey, the island that was home to generations of my mother’s family!

    • Caroline

      Hi Catriona. Thanks for these additions. I have read one of Peter May’s books, and its climax takes place on a rock in the sea, among thousands of sea birds, the ultimate island. The other books are not known to me, but I am always pleased to have your recommendations.
      Thank you. Caroline.

  6. Shame to say, I’ve had Night Walking sitting in a TBR pile for ages. Now you’ve convinced me I should read it!
    Also, having had the idea planted, I’ll probably end up with a Top Ten list of ‘island novels’ … my first thoughts of books to include would be William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, ML Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Amy Sackville’s Orkney, and at least one of Agatha Christie’s island-set thrillers.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for adding to the list of island novels. How could I have omitted Lord of the Flies, where being trapped is a central device of the book. I don’t know Amy Sackville’s work, but I’m always pleased to receive recommendations.
      I can’t say I especially enjoyed The Light Between Oceans. Being on a lighthouse keeper’s rock for months at a time must have distorted many judgements. Especially if you were the wife. I think I felt that this story was far fetched, but an interesting read.
      Please visit again and comment on the choices. I have quite a few list-type posts in the archives.

  7. I think I first fell in love with the idea of an island reading Anne of Green Gables.
    And Treasure Island (not all of it on the island, but the island is all-important and Stevenson began it by drawing a map of an island).

    • Caroline

      Thanks Lynne. I love the idea that Treasure Island began with a map. It must have had a cross marked on it. It must!

  8. Eileen

    Fantastic blog and wonderful replies and great responses to the replies. This was great to read right now as I have just finished my section of the index – which was a bit mind-numbing.
    Great books listed. And a wonderful theme. I have a short-story in my head about being trapped on the Isle of Wight with a mad woman – true! And it reminds me of a wonderful holiday on Scilly with Kate who wrote songs about the islands and missing the last boat. Thank you x

    • Caroline

      Thanks for the idea of being trapped with a mad woman on an island. Lots of possibilities there.
      As you know I have just been to the Scillies, and loved how different the islands were. It was tempting to miss the last boat.
      C xx

  9. Eileen

    Missing the last boat from Samson would create all sorts of ideas for writing as there is nothing there. Desert Island stuff.

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