If you go into Christopher Priest’s The Islanders expecting a normal novel – straight-forward narrative, three-act story, etc. – you’re not doing yourself any favors. Because normal doesn’t even vacation near the Dream Archipelago.
What The Islanders is, in part, is what it the “author’s” forward says it is: An attempt to catalogue some of the endless islands found in the Dream Archipelago. Many of the entries are what you’d expect to read in any travel magazine, a rather simple explanation of climate, attractions, when to visit, etc. Some are first-person accounts of time spent on that particular island. There are odder entries as well, such as a police transcript.
What it evolves into are numerous things. We get a history behind the history of many artists and public figures, as well as key events of great political and human rights importance. We get accounts of military atrocities, mystical happenings and ecological anomalies. And, despite our author’s protestations of what an ideal and wonderful place the Dream Archipelago is, the curtain is lifted to find its inhabitants are also just as vain, mean, confused and opportunistic as anyone anywhere.
I feel like I’m underselling this, and I shouldn’t be. Priest tells some interesting, intimate tales, while taking full advantage of the vast scope of his fictional project to do it. The Islanders has its own, unique brilliance. It’s just not a brilliance that’s easy to explain.