Saturday, February 10, 2007

Book Review: "Islands"

South African archivist Dan Sleigh uses his first novel, Islands (translated from the Afrikaans by novelist André Brinke) as a sort of fictionalized history of the first half-century or so of Dutch colonization in the Capetown region and Mauritius. The plot, such as it is, centers in an episodic fashion around a native woman whose life becomes entangled with the men of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) who settle her homeland, and then later focuses on her daughter. The episodes are effectively short biographical sketches of the men, with little dialogue.

While much "happens" in Islands, none of it ever really manages to be very exciting. There are many explorations made, crimes committed, punishments meted, &c., but somehow it all never cohered into a neat narrative. Sleigh's attempt to disguise history as fiction was evident and clumsy - he'd have been better off using his obviously prodigious research in writing a straightforward history a la The Fatal Shore, or even a more satirical, biting commentary like English Passengers (which handles the same general themes in New Zealand, but carries it off brilliantly). Islands just ends up coming off as a boring novel with little to recommend it aside from the inherently interesting subject matter.

There were some proofreading issues, but the biggest drawback to this 756-page beast is the fact that it's separated into just seven chapters, none of them under fifty pages long. Finding a convenient stopping point was nearly impossible, and since this book functioned well as a sleep-inducer, those breaks were quite necessary. All in all, not a book I can recommend except to the most dedicated fan of the VOC.

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