Why writers treasure islands

Perfectly formed for drama, it’s easy to see why islands remain such a popular destination for fiction

Ben Myers

The Tempest

Antony Sher as Prospero in the RSC’s 2009 production of The Tempest. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The remote backwoods of Alaska are not remote enough for Gary, one of the troubled central characters of David Vann‘s recent hit novel Caribou Island. Gary wants to retreat further from civilisation. His plan is to sail out across a lake to the uninhabited Caribou Island, build a cabin by hand and … well, that’s it. Just being on an island will, he thinks, be enough. Because that sense of detachment from mainland society – being able to view from a removed distance – is all he craves.

As with Vann’s previous book, Legend Of A Suicide, which primarily concerned a man and his son relocating to a cabin on an Alaskan island (there is a pattern emerging here) and the dire circumstances that followed, the place – in this case, the island – is the star of the show. Stoic, enduring, self-contained, tough: it manifests all the qualities that the men in Vann’s novels (and indeed so much of American literature, from Thoreau and Twain through to Kerouac, McCarthy and Proulx) aspire to.

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