Islands have obsessed authors for years. Something about observing society in miniature, surrounded by sea, is inescapably satisfying to write – and even more so to read. Again and again, I turn to books set on pieces of land marooned by water, in order to encounter communities at their most intense and intricate.
In Michael Crummey’s Galore, we meet the 19th-century inhabitants of a remote, small coastal town on Newfoundland, wrestling with all the best ingredients for a superstition-led saga spanning two centuries: a beached whale, a man birthed from its belly, and a wise woman determined to protect him.
Another fabulist take on island tales is Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch, this year’s Costa prize winner. In stark and uncompromisingly visceral language, a flesh-and-blood mermaid is hauled into a fishing boat off the coast of an imaginary Caribbean island, and what ensues is a brutal and intriguing story about ownership, jealousy and the dangers of a tale passed mouth to mouth by bitter tongues.
Islands are perfect settings for origin stories: places where characters can be formed before moving into the larger and often hostile world. Nowhere is this clearer than in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s classic prequel to Jane Eyre. Opening in Jamaica in the immediate aftermath of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, it considers the deep scars inflicted by colonial rule on a landscape and its inhabitants.
Madeline Miller’s Circe offers a very different sort of origin story, this time for the witch banished by Zeus to live out her days on Aeaea. Formerly known as a bit player in the Odyssey, Circe’s life story is offered here, full of salt and herbs and sex. It’s a romp, and also a beautiful account of making a home, and making peace with yourself.
For something more wholesome and no less entertaining, there is Tove Jansson’s glorious The Summer Book, a celebration of the kinship between a grandmother and granddaughter and the tiny Finnish island they inhabit together in summer. This is a fiercely tender novel, full of humour, surrendering to the idea that we can imprint upon the places we love just as much as they mark us. If there is a better book about summer on an island, I’m yet to discover it.
The Arctic is less an island than an ever-changing series of contested boundaries. Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, exploring absolute isolation and set over an eternally dark Arctic winter, is possibly the best modern ghost story I’ve read, full of a breathless, compelling narrative force and the sort of terror that seeps into your bones.
Typically in children’s literature, islands are playgrounds or places ripe for adventure, but in Geraldine McCaughrean’s Carnegie-winning Where the World Ends we are served a slice of stark, survivalist fiction so vivid I still recall my first reading of it. Based on a true story, it follows a group of boys abandoned on a sea stack off St Kilda while a plague rages at home. It’s a rare book that can transport us back into the rapture of childhood reading, but this is one.