Ultimate Library’s Top 5 Desert Island Books
Whether as metaphors or settings, novels of all genres are awash with islands. Some day-dreaming writers project images of utopia onto these tiny pockets of land so far removed from mainland monotony, while others construct sinister tales of the supernatural and barbaric. Calibanesque ‘savages’ are conveniently contained in their remote settings as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as authors explore imaginings of the unknown ‘other’ that resides in uncharted territories. For some, the wide stretch of ocean dividing island and continent keeps dark tales at a safe distance, and for others it allows the weird and wonderful to roam freely on the horizon, almost within sight.
With experts predicting that thousands of islands around the globe will be swallowed by the sea within the coming century, the air of mystery surrounding the theme of islands is unlikely to dwindle as these paradisiacal spaces are subjected to the mercy of rising sea levels. So, for now, venture out across land and water to far-flung tales and discover the multi-faceted nature of the island literary trope, with the following archipelago of reading suggestions.
Robert Louis Stevenson
One of the best-loved adventure stories ever written, Treasure Island’s classic tale of treasure maps, pirates with parrots on their shoulders, one-legged seamen and ‘X marks the spot’ is seen as pivotal in the literary creation of the archetypal Caribbean island. Wild, abundant with natural beauty and home to a long-lost treasure chest overflowing with golden medallions and exotic jewels, Stevenson’s tropical island is an image now firmly engraved on the public imagination, due to its continual replication by subsequent writers.
After washing up on an unknown beach off the coast of Venezuela, protagonist Robinson Crusoe spends the next 28 years stranded on a desert island, encountering pirates, shipwrecks, cannibals and battling loneliness and isolation. As the years go by, Crusoe builds a country home, a farm and even establishes new species on the island, perhaps reflecting the British Empire’s colonization and expansion in the eighteenth century. Seen as ground-breaking in the development of the English novel, the island in Daniel Defoe’s tale serves as a microcosm of European society.
Tar Baby tells the story of a love affair between two African Americans, who must strive to overcome the obstacles of their contrasting pasts and worldviews. Set on a Caribbean island, the social, racial and gender tensions present between the characters are heightened, echoing the power struggles in the modern world and creating a sense of claustrophobia as the reader is drawn into this microcosmic tale.
Desperate to escape Thailand’s beaten track, Richard, a young traveler, follows a map given in deathly circumstance to a secret island paradise. After a complicated and life-threatening journey traversing land and water, Richard finds the beach and becomes a part of the community’s idyllic and self-sufficient lifestyle. However, cracks begin to show in this earthly utopia, as it becomes evident that all is not as dream-like as it first appeared.
And now last, but certainly not least, a book much more suited to a lazy beach read. Gerald Durrell’s memoir will have you dreaming of sun-drenched childhood holidays as he paints a comical yet heart-warming portrait of Corfu. The island setting offers delightful escapism as you indulge in meticulous descriptions of four-legged animal friends and witty human portraits that will have you wishing you were part of the Durrell family.