A Review of
A History of the Island: A Novel
Lisa C. Hayden, Translator
Reviewed by Brent Bill
This book piqued my interest for several reasons. One was the description,
“This ingenious novel… is presented as a chronicle of an island from medieval to modern times. … The monastic chroniclers dutifully narrate events they witness: quests for power, betrayals, civil wars, pandemics, droughts, invasions, innovations, and revolutions. The entries mostly seem objective, but at least one monk simultaneously drafts and hides a “true” history, to be discovered centuries later. And why has someone snipped out a key prophecy about the island’s fate?”
Sounded intriguing to me. A sort of contemporary A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s post-apocalyptic classic of civilization reborn and chronicled by monks. A book which I’ve read and reread numerous times. Another reason is that the author is an acclaimed international novelist, but one whose work I was not familiar with, and it was time I felt I should get to know him through this work. Another is that Rowan Williams, whom I admire, proclaimed it a “masterpiece.” Finally, there was the fact that Vodolazkin was born in Kyiv and now lives in St. Petersburg. This interesting given the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia.
So, when it came, I immediately dove in. And soon came up for air.
It is, as the description says, ingenious. One of its main conceits, and threads, is a pair of 347-year-old regents, Prince Parfeny and Princess Ksenia who add their commentary and, sometimes, corrections to the various monks’ history as it progresses. They provide a truly long view of the island’s history and current events– even when they are in Paris, where a film is being made of their lives. To say they are an interesting couple is, at all sorts of levels, an understatement.
A second major thread, almost as central as Parfeny and Ksenia, is Agafon’s Prophecy:
And the ground will shake,
and blackwater will ignite in the North,
and a fiery water will begin to flow in the South.
And ash will float from the heavens,
And your hearts will turn to ash.
This prophecy runs through the history of the island and is always on islanders’ minds.
For all that, and despite Vodolazkin’s skillful writing, either the novel or I lost steam about half-way in. It began to feel to me a bit like a story of “one damn thing after another” and sometimes, in the words of Edna St. Millay, “the same damn thing again and again.” There is tension between the North and South parts of the island throughout. Foreign interests want to tap into the island’s resources and deceive the islanders regarding their motives. The people get tired of Prince Parfeny, who is wise and good, and want a new ruler. Princess Ksenia suits their fancy for a while, but then they get weary of her and want somebody new. So, a succession of rulers come through.
In that way it’s somewhat reminiscent of the people of Old Testament Israel. God is ruler – who could be better than that? But the people want someone more like them. So come the judges. Better, but then the people want a king. Then comes a succession of good kings and bad kings and good kings who become bad kings and…
That’s when A History of the Island begins to bog down.
Along the way, if you stick with it, there are some insightful critiques of “progress” and technology (including social media). But it became, for me, a bit of a slog. And the ending seemed a bit too neat, for my tastes. So, while I hate to disagree with Rowan Williams, I don’t think it’s a masterpiece. It is quirky. And somewhat interesting. But it’s not a novel I’ll be calling my friends about. Nor reading again.
J. Brent Bill
J. Brent Bill is a writer, writing teacher, photographer, and Quaker minister. He lives on Ploughshares Farm in rural Indiana which has been converted from production agriculture to a tall grass prairie and woods filled with native trees. His newest book Amity: Short Stories from the Heartland will be released in 2023. Find him online at: BrentBill.com
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