Islands have always attracted writers and readers as rich fictional microcosms. An island setting can be a paradise, retreat or prison, preserver of wilderness or tradition, test of survival skills. And the global malaise of climate change and Covid-19 may have intensified their allure because, in spite of rising oceans, island novels are springing up all over.
Just by chance, I have read three impressive examples recently: Audrey Magee’s The Colony, about an Irish-speaking island community during the Troubles; Norwegian Lars Mytting’s The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, partly set in Shetland, the Scottish islands where I have family roots; and now The Islands, a debut novel by Australian writer Emily Brugman.
Brugman draws on her unusual family story as a descendant of Finnish post-second world war migrants who became fishers on the Abrolhos Islands off Western Australia. This chain of dots in the Indian Ocean and its sliver of history are unfamiliar to most Australians, let alone the rest of the world, so she does not need to veer far from the facts to bring a fresh cultural story into Australian literature.
The Islands follows an ensemble of characters centred around three generations of the Saari family. In 1959 Onni Saari is a young man with the dangerous job of laying dynamite in the lead mines of Western Australia. But it is his brother Nalle who has disappeared at sea.
Onni makes the daylong boat trip from Geraldton to Little Rat Island, and when Nalle does not return he takes up his valuable cray fishing lease, bringing his wife, Alva, to join the small seasonal community. The men are torn between wealth and danger, hardened by work, weather and alcohol; characters with nicknames such as One-eyed Esko, Tall Tommi and Latvian Igor. As the joke goes: “There once was a Finn who loved his wife so much, he almost told her.”
Brugman lingers on the women who make homes in the rough camps: the straight-talking older Petra, the artist Helvi, and soon Alva’s daughter Hilda, among other children. Pregnancy and child rearing are risky in such isolation, but Alva prefers the island’s simple freedom to winters on the mainland, where neighbours dismiss them as peasants.
There are delightful surprises in the Nordic cold-weather traditions carried on in the sweltering south. Onni builds a sauna where the Finns sweat and socialise. They celebrate midsummer in winter, sing old songs and speak Finnish, which is sampled in bilingual bites. They live by superstitions, unnerved by dying birds and open cupboard doors.
Just as vivid are the islands themselves, mainly inhabited by abundant wildlife, and “dry as bone, the skeletal remains of coral bodies deposited over thousands of years by the push and pull of the current”. Brugman spent time in a shack on Little Rat Island and recreates with sensuous immediacy the slapping water, the sea creatures, the constantly changing sea and sky.
The fishers are haunted by the wreck of the Batavia, for which the Abrolhos Islands are most notorious. When the Dutch ship hit a coral reef north of Little Rat in 1629, many drowned and survivors were terrorised, raped and murdered by mutineers. Nothing so dramatic happens in The Islands, though there are ominous echoes.
Brugman acknowledges Thea Astley’s Drylands and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge as influences on her novel-in-stories form. Characters move in and out of focus and the narrative takes its quiet momentum – with some leaps in time – from their daily routines and changes of fortune over decades. As Onni and Alva age, Hilda grows up Australian, makes her own mistakes and raises her own daughter.
With such an evocative setting, Brugman could have pushed her creativity further, but her stories of family, place and industry are enough. The Islands sits comfortably between social history and imaginative fiction. The writing often rises into the realms of metaphor with pungent, poetic language and chapter headings – Pink snapper, Sea lion, Driftwood, Osprey – symbolising the characters’ experiences.
By the end, Brugman has made us care for these hardy people, whose lives she inhabits with curiosity and affection. If we thought we knew the whole story of European immigration to Australia, The Islands extends our horizon in yet another fascinating direction.