Archive for July 17th, 2017

July 17, 2017

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything

hargraveWriting about Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars, I said that one problem I had with the book was its inability to establish a baseline reality for its world; the reader had no sense of what was and wasn’t possible in this world, and so moments that might otherwise have been startling or meaningful lost their effect.

Which is why, despite my own genre leanings, I’m very glad that her second book isn’t a fantasy. The Island at the End of Everything is set in a version of our world, in the Philippines at what appears to be the beginning of the twentieth century. The book opens on the island of Culion, an island populated by those “touched” by a disease (that we soon realise is leprosy) and their families. Our narrator and protagonist, Amihan, is one of those untouched–she lives with a mother who is affected by the disease. Unfortunately, the state authorities (or their representatives on the island) have decreed that harsher rules of segregation are needed if the disease is to be isolated and wiped out. People from all across the Philippines who are affected are to be brought to the island, while those adults who do not have it can still choose to live on Culion but only in areas designated “clean”. All children who do not have the disease are to be shipped off the island and sent to orphanages.

One of my favourite short stories is Karen Joy Fowler’s “King Rat”, which I’ve never yet managed to make my way through without crying. “King Rat” is about the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and more broadly, the visceral awfulness of stories in which parents and children are forcibly separated.

Shortly after I met Vidkun, I wrote my own book. This was an illustrated collection of short pieces. The protagonists were all baby animals. In these stories a pig or a puppy or a lamb wandered inadvertently away from the family. After a frightening search, the stray was found again; a joyful reunion took place. The stories got progressively shorter as the book went on. My parents thought I was running out of energy for it. In fact, I was less and less able to bear the middle part of the story. In each successive version, I made the period of separation shorter.

I quote Fowler because I can, and because every excuse to do so is a good one; also to explain that I, like the narrator of this story, find this form of separation particularly hard to bear. The opening sections of The Island at the End of Everything are wholly taken up with the ripping apart of this small family, and the more straightforwardly sentimental it is (Ami and her mother calculate the number of letters they’ll have to write if they are to write one a day until Ami is allowed back on Culion again) the more I’m willing to commit to the book entirely. Which is all fine, except that the book is doing other things as well.

At the behest of the authorities, and particularly of Mr Zamora, the horrifying representative of the state, the children are removed from the island. Zamora is (I don’t like this comparison, let us have one conversation this year that’s not about Harry Potter) Umbridgelike, not only in his position as representative of deeply awful state institutions, but in a bigotry and sadism which start out seeming like they’re merely a feature of the institution he represents but that is revealed to be teetering on the brink of of something dark and unbalanced. (I’m forcibly restraining myself from making comparisons to other political leaders of this moment.) He hates and is terrified of the people he has been forced to work among–his obsession with “cleanliness” underlining just how afraid he is of catching the disease. This is not his only flaw–he is a naturalist, obsessed with butterflies (there’s some wordplay around “leprosy” and “lepidopterist” that fortunately isn’t made much of). To Ami, this mostly means that he kills butterflies, poisoning them in a bell jar that he keeps for the purpose. Her nanay (mother) is also fond of butterflies, though she, of course, has taken the opposite approach, planting a butterfly garden in the hope of bringing them to her home. (It hasn’t worked. “‘Not a single butterfly came last summer, Ami’ says Nanay. ‘I don’t think they like it on Culion.’”) The butterflies will turn out to be Significant–the evacuated children will force Zamora to drop his specimens and lose some on their way off the island–and when Amihan returns to say a final farewell, there they are, gloriously.

The butterflies are also the element that destabilises the book’s realism. In most senses this absolutely is historical fiction; the presence of the butterflies is such that we’re forced not to read the book in an entirely realist mode–it’s not magical realism (you could make an argument for The Girl of Ink and Stars being in or adjacent to that genre, though I don’t know that I’d be convinced), but I think it’s probably closest to fabulism.

Other people will probably write at length about this book’s found family, its implicit queer relationship, its evil scientist plot. All of these are handled varying degrees of well, and none of them made a huge impact on me. What stuck with me, I think, was something less tangible. In a dangerous attempt to return to Culion, Ami, Mari and Kidlat risk their lives on the sea, so that we see Ami “[...] think of all the things beneath us, the fish and the coral and the sharks.” There’s some of this sense in the early chapters as well, which feature characters both living with and very carefully not thinking about the thing that is going to kill so many of them and/or their loved ones. Which is to say that the lasting impression of this book for me, reading it in this year and at this time, is one of people giving themselves up to huge, fatal forces, and doing what needs to be done in the knowledge that things are ending, and ending soon. Until its final act, which is a reassuring return to normal operations (though perhaps not for Ami, for whom such a life has never been normal), the main emotive thrust of the book for me was a sort of gentle apocalypse.