Tuesday 15 July 2014

Review: "Burnt Island" by Alice Thompson

A struggling author accepts an invitation to stay on a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere while he tries to write a horror bestseller. What could possibly go wrong?
Image from Salt Publishing's website
I feel I should use a hushed tone to begin this review, because what I'm about to say may result in people with pitchforks and flaming torches chasing me down the street. Here goes, then. Despite the seemingly universal acclaim with which the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse by Alison Moore was received, when I read it I found myself somewhat bemused by the tsunami of adulation that had washed over Twitter and swept the novel up the charts and onto a lot of Book of the Year lists. Although I enjoyed the writing (and am keen to read Moore's collection of shorts, The Pre-War House and Other Stories), the story itself and the central characters didn't really press the right buttons for me.

So my heart sank a little when I picked up another novel from Salt Publishing, Alice Thompson's Burnt Island, and discovered that it too opens with a hapless, awkward chap undertaking a journey by ferry. Max Long, Thompson's protagonist, is perhaps marginally more successful in life than Moore's disaster-prone Futh, but as the ferry rolls on the rough sea and casts Max's luggage into the waves you know that he's not somebody upon whom good fortune has any particular interest in shining, either. But I was pleased to find that that's where the similarities ended, and Burnt Island turned out to be very much my kind of book.

Max is an author with a back catalogue of unsuccessful literary novels. Having been awarded a writing fellowship on Burnt Island, he steps off the boat with little more than the clothes he's wearing and a vague plan of penning a schlocky horror story - a novel written with a cynical eye on the bestseller charts. He's selling out; is he, perhaps, selling his soul? After being attacked by a gull and spending a disturbed night in what he first believes is a tiny stone cottage but turns out to be a pebble-dashed caravan that rocks in the wind (the first of many things on the island that are not what they seem), Max is invited to stay with James Fairfax. In some ways, Fairfax is the struggling writer's nemesis, an author whose debut novel achieved both huge critical acclaim and stellar sales - sufficient to keep him living in luxury for years. The world eagerly awaits Fairfax's next masterpiece, and Max is jealous of the other man's success almost to the point of hatred, yet convinced that staying with him will somehow be the key to breaking through his writer's block and hitting the big time.

Once he takes up residence in Fairfax's house, things really get strange for Max. He develops an obsessive interest in the beautiful Rose, who he first assumes to be a maid, although it quickly becomes apparent that the relationship between her and Fairfax is far more complicated than that. Shadowy figures seem to be watching and following him wherever he goes. He encounters huge stones that appear to move by themselves, runs into numerous doppelgangers, and experiences deeply unsettling visions. Is any of it actually happening, or is the horror novel he's trying to write affecting his mind? As Max's grip on reality starts to falter, he discovers a sinister secret about the book that made Fairfax's fortune, and begins to uncover the mystery of what happened to his predecessor, the last author to accept the Burnt Island writing fellowship... and who was never seen again.

There are many nods to established horror tropes in the book, and it all gets a bit meta in places, particularly when Max finds a disturbing passage from a manuscript Rose is working on, featuring a protagonist called - as you might expect - Max. All this trickery is done extremely well, though, with the horror movie cliches adding to the story and the island's mystery rather than undermining it. Thompson's writing is direct and unfussy without being too sparse or detached, and she keeps up the pace throughout. I loved how there are numerous interpretations you could apply to the novel; it's a story that stuck in my head for a long time after reading it and I'd recommend it to anybody looking for something a little less straightforward than your typical thriller, particularly if you're also a fan of the low-key horror of The Wicker Man and the isolation and creeping insanity of The Shining.

Salt Publishing will be reissuing a couple of Thompson's previous books soon, including The Existential Detective. On the strength of Burnt Island, I'll definitely check them out.


Teresa Stenson said...

Sounds good, Dan, I think I'll check that out. Fancy a bit of horror.

Swit-swoo at yer new-look blog, too.

Dan Purdue said...

Cheers, Teresa. I think I maybe should have made my name a bit bigger, y'know?

Yes, it's definitely worth a look. It's not Stephen King horror, it's a more unsettling, mess-with-your-head kind of thing. But, yeah, definitely one of the best things I've read so far this year.