10 Thrilling Imaginary Island Novels

Books Lists

Remote, imaginary islands have no doubt been the settings for stories ever since people first set out to sea; Homer famously stranded Odysseus on such enchanting isles as Calypso’s Ogygia, and Circe’s Aeaea. Island stories became particularly popular during the European Age of Discovery, with a substantial number, including The Tempest, partly inspired by the experiences of actual survivors. And ever since Robinson Crusoe, these stories have replicated wildly, like the rabbits set loose on Dr. Moreau’s island were supposed to do. In chronological order:

1. Robinson Crusoe (1719) – Daniel Defoe
One of the first English novels, Robinson Crusoe was the forerunner of a raft-load of adult castaway stories as well as Swiss Family Robinson, Gilligan’s Island and Space Family Robinson. The book itself was probably inspired by the experiences of Alexander Selkirk, a Scotsman who was stranded on a Pacific island for more than four years, 24 fewer years than this story’s hero. Ever resourceful, Crusoe uses the ruined ship’s supplies and the island’s wildlife to survive and prosper somewhere off the east coast of South America. With the help of a Bible he never bothered with before, he learns to be grateful for being cured of his wicked ways. Crusoe’s idyllic years with Friday, the “savage” he saves from visiting cannibals, have been fodder for their own raft-load of revisionist retellings.

2. The Mysterious Island (1874) – Jules Verne
Jules Verne wrote other castaway stories, but this one featured a balloon wreck as well as impressive displays of human survival skills, tons of ecological details, and a diverting plot. Set during the American Civil War, five Northern prisoners of war steal away by air. After being aloft for five days, they crash-land on this volcanic island in the South Pacific Ocean and come across multiple mysteries. Not least of these was the presence of Captain Nemo, made internationally famous by 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In 2002, two separate new translations were published; both are gripping, if lengthy, adventures and come complete with the original illustrations.

3. The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) – H.G. Wells
Set on a secluded island in the Pacific, Wells’ self-proclaimed “exercise in youthful blasphemy” continues to be unnerving, despite the two bad movies based on the tale and its loony premise. (As Margaret Atwood has put it—SPOILER ALERT— “no man ever did or ever will turn animals into human beings by cutting them up and sewing them together again.”) Dropping the reader into a lurid nightmare, Wells chillingly captures Dr. Moreau’s cruel scientific mind, the confusion and eventual soul-sickness of the narrator Prendick, and the wretchedness of Moreau’s tormented creatures. Atwood rightly calls the island “a little colonial enclave of the most hellish sort.”

4. Angel Island (1914) – Inez Haynes Gillmore
Five shipwrecked men discover the island’s only other inhabitants to be beautiful, winged women. Another wild premise but, as Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her introduction to its 1988 reissue, it is also “satiric, funny, fanciful, and a good read.” In suffragette Gillmore’s novel, the men soon capture the women, and allegorical fun ensues, involving clipped wings, lost freedom, and a daughter who can fly. Angel Island may also have inspired Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) about a utopian society made up entirely of women.

5. Lord of the Flies (1954) – William Golding
Golding was a veteran of WWII and a schoolteacher when he got the idea for his novel after reading cozy books such as Swiss Family Robinson and Coral Island to his two children. He decided to write about how a group of children would actually behave. As he explained the story to one prospective publisher, “Even if we start with a clean slate like these boys, our nature compels us to make a muck of it.” Subsequent takes on Golding’s scenario include Marianne Wiggins’ disturbing John Dollar, which follows an English schoolteacher, eight young girls, and a sailor marooned off the coast of Burma, and Libba Bray’s satirical Beauty Queens, in which the surviving Miss Teen Dream contestants seem to thrive on a desert island in the absence of society’s pressures and expectations.

6. Concrete Island (1973) – J. G. Ballard
This sharp and twisted Crusoe revision follows 35-year-old architect Robert Maitland’s efforts to get off of a London traffic island. He’s apparently been concussed, unable to think himself out of a no-man’s land between three converging motorway routes. In 2011, there was talk of a Concrete Island movie to be directed by Brad Anderson, written by Scott Kosar, and to star Christian Bale, but so far only poster art has surfaced for this possible Machinist reunion.

7. Foe (1986) – J. M. Coetzee
In this playful reworking of the Crusoe story, the narrator is Susan Barton, a woman who spent a year on the island with Cruso (no “e” here) and Friday before they were all “rescued” by a passing ship. Most of the short novel is addressed to Daniel Foe (who added the “De” to his family name) as Barton tries to get him to write up an island adventure story based on her story. The wild divergences between Robinson Crusoe and the version Barton presents include Cruso’s lack of practicality, the inability of Foe’s Friday to speak because his tongue has been cut off, and Barton’s failure to make any appearance in Defoe’s book. Coetzee raises questions, both serious and mischievous, about art, imagination, and the precarious positions of Barton and Friday in their times. When Coetzee won the Nobel in 2003, he revisited the island. Taking on the persona of Defoe’s Crusoe for his acceptance speech, he lamented all of the “plagiarists and imitators” who “foisted on the public their own feigned stories of the castaway.”

8. The Beach (1997) – Alex Garland
Hailed at its publication as the first, great Generation X novel, Garland’s debut presents an island society set apart from the world of overdeveloped tourist traps. On this beach, a young, international group of peace-seekers live and work together in sun-kissed harmony. But every utopia must fall, and Garland nicely captures the perils of squids, sharks, and our fellow human beings. Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the 2000 movie version, and a TV series may be in the works.

9. From the Mouth of the Whale (2008) – Sjon
If you can only read one surreal Icelandic book set in the seventeenth century this year, let it be this one by Sjon – novelist, poet, and Bjork collaborator. Growing up on a small island, he has said, means being “born and bred with most other people’s literary metaphor…. I take the idea to its extreme and write about one man trapped on a tiny island. For in the end all of us islanders are nothing but the bastard half-siblings of Caliban.”

10. The People in the Trees (2013) – Hanya Yanagihara
Like Dr. Moreau, the reviled doctor at the center of Yanagihara’s provocative novel seeks to advance science at whatever cost to actual living creatures. Yanagihara sets much of her action on the fictional Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu, where her narrator, Dr. Norton Perina, has gone searching for a “lost tribe.” Yanagihara was initially inspired by two very difference sources: the colonial complexities of The Tempest and the case of Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, who, years after identifying a disease that befell a tribe in Papua New Guinea, was convicted of sexually abusing one of the native children he had adopted. More than any other imaginary island on this list, Ivu’ivu is terribly altered by its visitors.

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