Friday, February 5, 2021

Island Dreams - Gavin Francis

As a reader, if there was one thing I could change about publishing in England it would be to have one of the really big publishing houses move out of London to one of the big Northern or Midland cities. I'd love to see the kind of differences it might make to the current literary scene and the opportunities it presents at every level. I assume we'd end up with something that looks a bit more like Scottish publishing does - which in turn is why I enjoy book shopping in Scotland so very much.

Canongate and Birlinn are both independent publishers, and both are big enough to feel mainstream rather than niche. the books they publish are old, new, regional, international, cover every genre I can think of, and are consistently interesting. I don't want to read every book that Canongate publishes, but I'll pick up any book that has their logo on it's spine just to make sure. 

'Island Dreams' was a Christmas present from my mother, who to be fair knows me well enough to know that a book with Islands in the title would appeal to me* which is why it's only taken me a month or so to get around to it, rather than the entirely typical couple of years. The Canongate logo definitely helped push it up my list. 

I didn't really know what to expect from this book - it's just expensive enough not to want to take a chance on without browsing access to bookshops (how many amazing things are getting overlooked at the moment because of this?) and the 2 reviews on amazon are no help at all (somebody loved it, somebody else was disappointed). I really didn't expect it to revolve around one of the central dilemmas of my own adult life though - how to accommodate a love of small islands with my wider responsibilities and circumstances.

I would love to return to island living, but as my partner keeps pointing out I have a certain ambivalence towards it too. It's not really the logistical difficulties, although I'm neither blind to them, or altogether enthusiastic about the reality of being weather bound when you badly need to be somewhere else. It's more about what happens when you live in the place you've always chosen to escape too. Where do you escape to then when it all gets a bit much?

I'm probably going to be as unhelpful as the previous amazon reviewers in summing up 'Island Dreams', it's quick to read, almost half of it is made up of images of maps, and even when that's not the case some pages only contain a paragraph, but it's something that will stick with me and that I think I'll go back to time and again. 

There isn't a narrative as such, neither biography, philosophy, or travel writing (the categories it's listed under) really reflect it, though philosophy might come closest, and there are glimpses of Francis's life, and he does travel a lot. It's sort of a book about how we're living, how we need isolation sometimes, and the difference between that and insulation. It's a little bit about growing up and a lot about how islands can hold our imagination.

What I really liked though, is the way the book gently asks if you've considered this, or thought about it like that. The maps gave me the space to think about what I was reading, and there was the comfort of finding someone else who feels the same twin need for isolation and connectivity in turn. Gavin Francis seems to have reconciled those needs better than I have, but reading this gives me a fresh optimism that I might sort out the puzzle in a way that works for me too. 

*There was some heavy hinting in the form of an open wish list, but my present could just as easily have been some classic crime fiction, something about graveyards and/or folklore, or a book about women and art crime.

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