Wednesday 19 September 2012

REVIEW: On the Island, by Tracey Garvis Graves (4.5*)

(Penguin, 2012)

This was the perfect holiday read while we were away soaking up some sunshine.  I actually thought On the Island was a young adult book when I ordered it, but it definitely isn't!  Which was probably a good thing, as a romantic beach read without a bit of spiciness would be... well, disappointing.  So, Anna is a thirty year-old teacher accompanying her new student, seventeen year-old T.J., to his parents' holiday house in the Maldives for some summer tutoring.  T.J. is in remission from cancer, and not all that happy about spending his vacation with his nose in a pile of schoolbooks - no matter how attractive his new teacher might be...  As it happens, their summer is going to be far from mundane, as their plane crashes between Malé and their final destination, leaving them marooned on one of the many uninhabited islands dotted across the vast sweep of the Maldives.

About two thirds of the novel consists of the trials and tribulations of desert island life for T.J. and Anna, and I was thoroughly absorbed in their daily experiences.  It's the kind of scenario that is familiar enough for the reader to create some very vivid mental imagery along the way, but also has plenty of scope for innovation on the author's part - and Graves definitely kept me hooked.  I thought she provided a good balance between the pair's fight for survival and the negative aspects of island life (for example, when they are forced to drink stagnant water and suffer the consequences) and the more idyllic picture-postcard moments (like their afternoons sitting by the fire roasting freshly caught fish). 

Watching these all-modern people learning to survive was a fascinating ride, and in the way a good book should, made me really start to reflect on how I would have coped in their shoes.  It emphasised the huge importance of company and social interaction; it was clear that on the island, having another person to look out for them, to help them, even just to talk to, made all the difference - and when one of them was in peril it was genuinely heart-wrenching watching the other struggle with what the implications could be if they were left alone.  I cried when Tom Hanks lost his football 'friend' in Castaway for the same reason - because we all have a kind of deep primal fear of that kind of loneliness. 

This intense microcosm and enforced proximity neatly paved the way for the romantic element of the book.  Some readers might wonder about the appropriateness of a relationship between a student and a teacher, but actually, in this unprecedented situation it's hard to imagine how a bond WOULDN'T form between T.J. and Anna.  As the weeks turns to months and then to years, their boundaries inevitably start to crumble, they get closer with every shared difficulty and joy, and as T.J. becomes a grown man it might be considered odd if their relationship didn't become more complicated at some point.  T.J. is never an immature character anyway; even at the beginning he is a realistic teenage boy, with anger and a raging sex drive, but this is tempered by the maturity he has acquired through his illness, and the necessity of being a man on the island.  I was definitely rooting for them, as mutual tenderness and respect, growing love and a unique shared experience cemented them together into an inseparable couple.

What I deeply appreciated about this book was the fact that Graves doesn't resort to a cliched 'And then a plane flew over and we waved and got picked up' way of ending her characters' island stay.  Instead she cleverly ties it in with real-life events and orchestrates a far more gritty and interesting escape.  The last part of the book follows Anna and T.J. back to 'real life' - something usually missing from stories like this - and explores how they adjust to being back in America with their families around them, modern conveniences at every turn, and the press desperate to hear their story and dissect the propriety of their relationship.  This section wasn't quite as gripping or immersive, but it rounded off the novel in a far more satisfying and realistic way than if it had simply ended at the moment they got off the island.

I only really had a couple of little niggles while I was reading.  One was that the dialogue was slightly clunky at times, particularly because of the frequent overuse of names.  Anna doesn't do this so much, but I noticed that T.J. frequently uses her name in conversation.  It doesn't really sound right, particularly given that they are the only two people on the island!  My other tiny gripe was with the occasional over-idyllic moments, like the dolphins that come to play in the lagoon and befriend T.J. and Anna.  Not that this is completely out of the question, of course - and the dolphins do have an important moment of their own later on - but it did smack a bit of a child's fantasy desert island at times!

Other than that, however, I found this to be a stellar bit of storytelling and a great read for a dose of holiday escapism.  I was genuinely caught up in T.J. and Anna's fight for survival and their budding romance, and their isolation meant that every moment of happiness, sadness or fear cut that much more deeply, both for them and for the reader.  It was quite an emotional ride!  Like a movie, I wanted these warm and relatable characters to get their break and live happily ever after.  I teared up a few times, and smiled along with them in others.  This will definitely be a keeper for me - in fact, reading it outside on a hot sunny day might have to become a new summer tradition!

Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK