Sam Taylor, The Island at the End of the World

Publisher: Penguin
2009, 215 pages, paperback, $14.00

when reading the jacket of Sam Taylor’s The Island at the End of the World, one is given permission to read the work as a post-apocalyptic narrative. It is the story of a father who, like the biblical Noah, builds an arc under the looming threat of a great flood and saves his family from certain death and possible damnation. But this epistolary novel, although it smacks of biblical prose and moral council, is not what it seems.

This twist in narrative is the novel’s saving grace.

The prose of Taylor’s novel, however, presents a problem for this reader. Presented in journal-like exposition, the novel reflects three characters’ perspectives. The first is the father’s, whose voice vacillates from present-day colloquialism to scriptural ranting. The language works for the character, since it is a reflection of his state of mind–insight into his struggle to erase remnant and memory of the world he left behind: his Babylonia.

A second voice belongs to his daughter, Alice. Alice spends her days reading Shakespeare, and her language reflects the poetic prose of Romeo and Juliet. The fact that the girl is about fifteen years old adds to the melodrama of her language and dialogue with others in the novel.

Finn, his son, presents a third perspective, which is consistent with a boy of about twelve who has lived on a deserted island for nine years. His language is uneducated; most of his dialect is written phonetically in a Louisiana southern drawl.

The problem lies in the credibility of the characters’ written language, specifically Finn’s, if the reader is to treat the narrative as a true epistolary novel. If Finn is in fact twelve years old, schooled by his father, and routinely reads the Bible, Shakespeare, and children’s fables, it stands to reason that he would use a more educated vernacular. I understand an author’s license to manipulate language in effort to project a character’s world, but when the reader is ripped from the story and forced to revisit several lines of prose in order to understand it, the author has failed in developing and delivering that world. 

Taylor has taken what could have been an artful telling of how the modern world can contaminate a man’s soul–and the lengths to which he would go to protect his family from such contamination–and has crafted a frustrating read. Even so, the narrative alone, despite the grammatical navigation, is still worth exploring.

-Yvonne Guerrero