Burnt Island, Alice Thompson

burnt island 

I was childishly excited to find this little treasure waiting for me on my doormat when I got back from France last week. I love a bit of creepy gothicism and as my Twitter feed and (these two posts) will verify I am prone to semi-coherent gushing about Salt Publishing and what excellent taste they have. Let the record show here and now that Alice Thompson’s sixth novel did not disappoint.

When struggling writer Max Long is offered a three-month sabbatical to write on Burnt Island by a mysterious benefactor, he soon finds himself entangled with bestselling author James Tait and what remains of his family. As Max becomes increasingly desperate for success in the wake of a recent divorce and in the face of crippling writer’s block he decides to sacrifice his creative integrity and to write a bestselling horror, all action and “no symbolism.” Max’s mental state begins to deteriorate and he starts seeing things: terrifying visions of monsters and figures in the dark until the distinction between reality and imagination has been entirely lost to the undulations of the sand dunes and swept away with the tide.

Thompson crafts a world in total isolation: the central device of the island generates an incredibly eerie and unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty and menace but it does more than that. It serves as a motif for psychological and personal isolation, the characters all feel strangely disconnected from each other as they are viewed through the prism of Max’s literary ambitions and musings. They are distant and unreal, intriguing figures in both the story Max is trying to write and the story he finds himself living. As the two become indistinguishable, the world around him becomes increasingly nightmarish and the reader is drawn into the meditations of imagination and reality with the same intensity as Max himself.

It’s an extremely clever book. Intensely self-referential and intricately constructed, it draws on and plays with the conventions of horror in a way that creates layers of reality, hallucination, dream and writing that are so closely woven together they become impossible to separate. You can’t work out whether Max’s imagination is bleeding into reality or it is some warped reality that is bleeding into Max’s imagination. The prose is sparse and has a lucid quality to it that lends itself to the sort of unembellished description that builds tension and suspense. Its quiet, unassuming voice tells the story (stories?) with the sort of Kafkaesque detachment that breeds uneasiness and dread.

The result is an assured and accomplished novel that I would thoroughly recommend. It’s very different from some of the other stuff I’ve been reading lately (Boxer Beetle, Cat’s Cradle and Number 9 Dream – posts on the latter two to come I promise…) and it’s been refreshing for that alone. I’ve been scrabbling around as I write this for a particular word to appropriately convey what quality it is that Thompson’s writing has in bucketloads and after 500 other words, I think I’ve found it: class. It’s a classy novel from a class-act author. Give it a read…

5 thoughts on “Burnt Island, Alice Thompson

  1. That sounds incredibly creepy! I’m reading a book called ‘The Mist’ (niebla) by Miguel de Unamuno with similar ideas that is essentially about the inner mental state of the protagonist, Augusto Perez – it’s depressing, he’s introverted and introspective, and he thinks that he is the sole person in existence… he cannot find comfort on this planet – and so retreats to the metaphysical by creating his own new reality. But then the reader learns of his own ‘unreality’ as the character is merely a fictive element – 2 characters (one of them actually real) start talking about their existence, this is when Unamuno the writer himself intervenes and states that these characters are merely fictive elements. Perez’s mental state that can be understood in its creative dimension doesn’t hold and he is in wait for a reader that would give him presence.There are so many other interesting ideas – ‘conocimiento’ in sp means to ‘meet’ as well as to ‘know’, and Unamuno plays on the idea of acquaintance/love and knowledge. it’s v. self-knowing book and is creepy too!! (its ideas are based on cervantes’ don quijote of the idea of the story within a story) – almost like the film inception! 😀 your book sound really interesting though! Also, check your mail, I have a recommendation for you.


  2. Sounds intriguing. Reminds me, from what you say about this novel, of H. James’s ‘Turn of the Screw’ – is the protagonist really seeing things, or is it all in her mind? Thanks for an interesting and stimulating review


  3. Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond to these – thanks so much for commenting. I’m glad you all liked the post!

    It *is* similar to ‘Turn of the Screw’ in that respect and it’s concerned with storytelling and the nature of stories too. I thoroughly recommend it, it develops beautifully.

    Dikshali – glad to hear you’re having a productive and book-filled summer! I will check my school email next time I’m in – I do love recommendations…


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