Book Review of Islands of Silence by Martin Booth
There are books whose plot outline fails to tell the real strength of the story being told. Islands of Silence is one of those books. The protagonist of Martin Booth’s novel is Alec Marquand and he has spent most of his adult life in mental institutions refusing to speak or communicate with anyone else in any fashion.
As he reaches the final days of his life, he recounts his experiences as a young man which led to his decision to be mute. The danger in this approach is that, in less capable hands, Alec could come off as psychotic or unsympathetic. Fortunately, Martin Booth has created a deeply textured character with a traumatized soul who has chosen a path that allows him to survive in an imperfect world.
The chapters in this novel alternate between the present-day Alec and his story as a young man, striking out on his own as an archaeologist in 1914. The elder Alec tells of the discipline necessary to maintain his silence, the kindly doctor who wants to draw Alec out of his shell, his dreams that content or frighten him, and the horrors and evil he has seen in the past. He is a man most certainly sane, lucid in his thoughts, and convinced of the nature of evil that exists outside of his controlled environment.
As a young man, Alec was not the gregarious type, preferring time to himself or with the few people who were close to him. His first assignment as an archaeologist was for a Scottish landowner who hired him to investigate ancient Stone Age brochs on his property in the town of Breakish.
Alec worked alone during the day, and spent his evenings with Ogilvy, the innkeeper where he stayed. Ogilvy was an old sailor educated in the ways of the world and he kept Alec informed of the history of the town and the behaviors and superstitions of the townspeople.
While he worked on the main broch near the water’s edge, Alec could see another broch across the straits on a small island. Ogilvy then told him that the island is called Eilean Tosdach — the Island of Silence. The townspeople believed it to be a place of no return, that once there the silence would swallow them up.
Drawn by the mystery and the urge to examine the other broch, Alec visited the island. On what he assumed to have been a uninhabited island, he spied a beautiful young woman, cat-like in her movements and unable to speak any human language.
Alec was immediately bewitched by her. Ogilvy told him that the townspeople consider her a tannasg, a witch, and anyone coming in contact with her must be banished from the area. Alec returned to the island once more see if he could find more about her.
She then came to visit him while he worked on the broch on the mainland. She allowed him to sketch her and offered her friendship to him. Alec found himself drawn to this pure and primitive woman, unstained by modern life. Alec was torn when she embraced him:
I could have seduced her, lowered her to the spongy grass that grew between the debris of the walls, lain upon her and been her first lover. Of that I’m sure. Yet I did not. I just stood with her in that ancient place, the stone of the broch our only witnesses, and hugged her closely, feeling her breath on my neck and listening to her sigh.
Nor was it that I did not want her. I yearned for her, fantasised as I held her of bringing her to Breakish, or dressing her in real clothes, of taking her away with me. Of saving her. No sooner had I thought it, though, than I knew such a plan was impossible. I would not have been her salvation. It would have been like capturing a beautiful wild creature — a cheetah, say, or an iridescent hummingbird — and keeping it as a pet, out of its natural habitat.
To lie with her would have been to destroy her, to have given her a memory she could not repeat, imbue in her a longing she would never be able to satisfy without leaving Eilean Tosdach. To have seduced her would have been to devastate her innocence, corrupt her world by dragging her unknowingly into my own.
World War I brought Alec’s idyllic world to an end. His military stepfather arranged an officer’s commission for him, but Alec refused it and was arrested and jailed for being a conscientious objector. While in prison, he was tormented by the warders and inmates who considered him a coward for refusing to fight in the war. He was released once he agreed to help out in the war effort in a non-lethal manner, after which he was trained as a medic and sent off to battle.
Alec’s life to this point had skirted the edge of disaster. He’d survived an automobile collision with a horse, had kept his contacts with the primitive woman secret from the townspeople so they wouldn’t run him out of town, had managed to avoid any serious injuries from his treatment in prison.
It was as if a combination of denial of the evil in the world accompanied by a modicum of luck had kept him from serious harm. That luck would run out when Alec was sent ashore in the terrible battle of Gallipoli and his life was forever changed.
The telling of the first day of battle is gripping and horrific. Martin Booth has treated the reader much like Alec with evil and terror just out of reach. That morning of the battle, he rushes us headlong into the noise, chaos, absurdity, and the surreal horror that defines war, and the death and destruction of men’s minds and bodies that inevitably accompany it.
All of the characters in this novel are intimately drawn. We come to understand and empathize with them, especially Alec. We can insinuate ourselves into his fond memories and fantasies and feel his pain at the horrors he wishes he no longer knew. Alec’s thoughts and ideas make perfect sense once you know his story.
Martin Booth has created a remarkable book about a man wounded by the failings of man and his modern world. This is a novel that will touch you in many ways, teasing your heart, provoking your mind, and challenging you to look into that dark matter of humanity we all fear. Alec muses about the death that will eventually come for him:
What I should like to think is that when my heart makes its final flutter and the electricity in my brain closes down, those sins I have kept so close for so long, acknowledged yet unspoken, will die with me. Yet in my soul I know that they will not. I am mortal, but they are perpetual and will endure to the end of time.
Alec will never be able to forget what he has seen, and we will never forget meeting Alec and what he has taught us.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.