When Guy lost his parents in a car accident as a young man, he seized the opportunity to strike out on a grand adventure. It was fairly simple to go down to the docks and find a ship willing to give him passage in exchange for performing menial tasks like running errands, cleaning, and cooking. It is aboard this ship that Guy leaves his Canadian homeland, but it is the aftermath of a terrible accident that gives him the adventure for which he longs.
When the ship seemingly runs aground, Guy is saved from a watery grave by Luca, the first mate. As the contraband their ship was carrying literally blows up around them, the pair works hard to get away from the fast-sinking wreckage. Yet instead of immediately spotting either Floridian or Cuban shores, there is nothing around as far as either man can see. Safe from immediate harm, the two are left to drift in a fast rising fog. By the time the fog lifts, the pair find themselves on a paradise island peopled with men and women who are nothing short of an anthropological anomaly—they live their lives entirely without contact from any outsiders.
Not only are the people of this island segregated from the outside world and all its material and social trappings, but they are a homonormative society. Men live with and love other men and women live with and love other women. Both genders respectfully keep to separate sides of the island and even their procreation protocol is sensitive of the taboo of a man lying with a woman. For a gay man like Guy, this is a boon…at times perhaps too much so, what with sex literally being often the equivalent of a handshake. He quickly acclimates to island life and finds himself drawn to a particular local named Nando. Luca, on the other hand, cannot let go of the closeted life he was leading prior to the accident. He readily participates in aspects of island life that satisfy him sexually and socially, but is increasingly haunted by Western assumptions that gay men are not really men. Indeed, Luca longs to find a way off the island and back to Canada.
As the weeks and months pass, Guy gets ever more wrapped up in the fabric of the island’s society. In contrast, Luca turns to drinking and plotting with disgruntled outcasts—heterosexual sent to live on a neighboring island to keep their subversive lifestyles out of the eyes of decent people—and eventually hatches a way to get off the island. The one caveat is that he ends up forcing his former crew mate and friend Guy to abandon the life he’d build with Nando.
Fast forward forty years and Guy is a well-to-do professor of anthropology at a famous Canadian university. As he’s gotten older, memories of the near fantasy-like island refuse to leave well enough alone. The memories threaten to consume Guy, so he takes advantage of the Canadian healthcare system to see a psychiatrist. Over the course of several weeks, he recounts his experiences finding and living on the island to his closeted doctor. All the while, events in Guy’s current life seem to be growing ever more unstable.
When all is said and done, Guy is left with one conclusion: perhaps it’s time for another adventure.
I so very much enjoyed this story. Initially, I was skeptical of the presentation. Each chapter contains a little episode from twenty-something year-old Guy’s life on the island that is bookended by snippet of sixty-something year-old Guy retelling the story to his psychiatrist. I fully expected to be bored by one or the other of these two threads. Yet the more I read, the more difficult it was to pick a favorite thread. Stylistically, I found it interesting that twenty-something Guy’s chunks are told in first person present tense, whereas sixty-something Guy’s bookends are told in third person past tense. Yet another device to keep the two distinguished (although the formatting clearly separates the bookends from the island story, too).
Part of the reason I opted to read this book is because it features a older character. I literally had no expectations one way or the other, but past experience had primed me for seeing an older man falling in love again. Given the set-up of the book, I expected Guy to fall for his psychologist or maybe the nurse/receptionist at psychologist’s office. Despite the “bookend” treatment given to present-day Guy, the psychologist and the receptionist, there was a lot of nuance packed into there interactions. While Guy is definitely the main character and Luca/Nando clear seconds in the island-story bits, I have to argue that the doctor and nurse probably qualify as main supporting characters. Reading how Guy and his doctor play off one another was almost more interesting than watching young Guy fall in love with Nando.
One thing that I found myself constantly wondering is whether or not older Guy would be vindicated. That is, he is seeing a mental health professional because he’s worried his memories of that long lost island are actually delusions. And increasingly, he just cannot stop thinking about the island and what it meant to him and…what it means if it was never real, or how to get back there if it was. Clearly, with so much time having passed, it’s hard to imagine an adult with a well-paying respectable job like Guy just skipping town to chase a fantasy. With that self-inflicted idea planted in my brain, I kept wondering if the psychologist or the nurse would somehow end up being his long lost lover Nando, or Nando’s son or something.
Not only was I captivated by the life and times of Guy, I was enthralled with the ending. My heart was literally in my throat as I read the final chapter where Guy explains how his adventure on the island came to an end, how Luca’s deterioration forced him and Guy to flee the island. Despite the heart-wrenching, unimaginable shifts that Guy and Luca experienced, I thought the manner in which current-day Guy’s story ends was masterfully told. It neither draws things out needlessly, nor leaves the reader entirely devastated. Perhaps that seems like an odd combination, but I’m sure you’ll understand if you read this book…and I would recommend this story to everyone!
The attention Campbell pays to structuring an island society and represents such with consistent and vibrant details. Even better, while typical Western culture seems to be everything this island culture is not, Campbell supports the differences through the islanders themselves. I truly enjoyed how he presents the islanders’ way of life, mannerisms, oral traditions, and whatnot as being common knowledge—and highlighting that with what Guy’s Western perspective considers common knowledge.
Here is a deeply satisfying read that will give you plenty of food for thought.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.