Gollancz, h/b, £12.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
The word novel originally meant ‘of a new kind or nature, strange, hitherto unknown’ rather than specifically a long work of fiction. This book by Christopher Priest is published as a novel and fits very well into the former definition; whether it also fits the latter is something that could generate a lot of discussion.
The Dream Archipelago was a book published in 1999 and consisted mostly of stories written between 1978 and 1980. The five stories and the new, introductory piece (which is still fiction), are set on a distant planet that has most of the modern conveniences we are familiar with such as aircraft and computers. The Archipelago is an uncounted collection of islands girdling the equatorial regions of the world. To the north is a large continent on which there are two warring countries. They do most of their actual fighting on the southern continent but to get there the troop ships have to pass through the Archipelago. Sometimes they stop. Some islands have garrisons on them.
Priest started writing The Islanders as a gazetteer of the Dream Archipelago, pulling out of the original stories names, climates and histories, the kind of thing that would have gone into a Rough Guide. This accounts for the format as the entries are listed by alphabetical island name. It has evolved into much more and has become a tangled tapestry revolving around one incident on one island. A number of contemporary historical characters recur, each mention adding either to the knowledge of, or confusion left behind. To elicit the truth is like picking through a barrel of green apples to find the ripe ones.
The centre of the controversy is a mime artist known by the name of Commis who died on stage in a theatre on Goorn when a sheet of plate glass fell on him. Although it could have been an accident, the assumption from the start was that it was a case of murder for which someone had to be convicted.
Chaster Kammiston is an acclaimed novelist from Piqay who built his reputation around not being able to leave the island due to various superstitions. As his by-line is on the introduction, where he warns the reader not to trust the veracity of the entries the truth of this becomes highly suspect. He may or may not have been on Goorn at the time of the incident.
Esla Caurer appears on many islands in many guises. As a writer and social reformer she influenced many inhabitants. She is a teacher on Smuj, a manifestation on Derril, Kammiston’s lover on Piqay and the champion of a young man from Cheoner who was executed for a crime he probably did not commit.
Turning up on almost every inhabited island, and leaving in a hurry after possible sexual indiscretions is Dryd Bathurst, an artist as famous for his affairs as his renowned canvases. Another artist that has left her mark on the landscape is Tamarra Oy. Her installations are of a grander affair – tunnels bored into the rocks with varying effects.
In some ways, like a true gazetteer, this is a book you can dip in to. It is a selection of cleverly interwoven histories, stories and descriptions which up to much more than the individual parts. It is worth rereading sections to spot the clues planted and possibly missed as the heart of this book spirals around itself. Is this a novel? Yes. But please, beware of the insects from the island of Aubrac Grande.