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
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
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
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.
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.
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 …
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