"No man is an island," the English poet and cleric John Donne assured us four centuries ago, his words meant to provide solace to the lonely and despairing. But what if some of us like to seek out islands, and are inexorably drawn to the promise of solitude that such places augur, all our lives?
General physician-cum-writer Gavin Francis turns his attention to people of such distinctive temperament—including himself—in Island Dreams. Subtitled "Mapping an Obsession", this is a gorgeously produced book, replete with maps, ancient and modern, of islands from all over the world.
Francis takes us on far-flung journeys, to Juan-Fernandez, for instance, where Alexander Selkirk, the English sailor who was the original inspiration behind Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, was marooned for several years. From the icy emptiness of Greenland to Mount Athos in Greece, the seat of an orthodox sect of Christian monks, he mines his lifelong travels for insights and ideas. He even undertakes expeditions to the Andamans in India and Robben Island in South Africa, both famous for their prisons. And, of course, he goes on frequent tours of the Scottish and British isles, big and small.
Yet, physical journeys are only one part of the book's design. Island Dreams is truly exceptional in its desire to unpack the psychological allure of the islander life—especially for those who spend their days in landlocked cities and towns.
For Francis, the appeal of islands is inextricably tied to the possibility of leaving behind what another writer-doctor, John Keats, called "the fever and fret of life". Islands offer escapes into remoteness, a break from stressful situations, be it an exhausting job or a heartbreak. "The word isolate comes from the adoption into English of the Italian isolare," Francis reminds us, "to make into an island." The etymology has an eerie ring in these days of the pandemic, when terms such as "isolation", "quarantine", and "physical distancing" seem to roll off the tongues of even toddlers. But isolation isn't always undesirable.
Isolation doesn't doom one and all to misery. On the contrary, it may offer to some a much-needed repose for introspection, usher in clarity of thought and purpose, help them reboot themselves. A break from the busy distractions of the mainland mutes the excess noise. The silence of islands allows us to recognise our true selves, shed the masks we wear over our workaday personas. "Is that the perennial appeal of Crusoe?" as asks Francis. "That we all have a thirst to define ourselves in solitude?
In extreme cases, isolation without any promise of periodic remission may turn individuals "insulated", a subtly different state of being. "The insulated person is one who no longer has any lines of communication between the false self and the true self," Francis explains. "They no longer know what’s true. They’re all alone."
Having lived in a remote outpost in Antarctica for over a year as part of a job, Francis knows the precarity of such conditions. Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, his 2014 book, is a record of his days during that stint—a bravura feat of science writing, natural history, travelogue and memoir rolled in one. Island Dream continues to probe the emotional and material consequences of reclusion through Francis' encounters with monks and other islanders during his travels, though across a much more expansive canvas.
Memory is the thread that strings together the narrative, rich with observations, recollections and analyses, culled from a lifetime of travel, reading and thinking. Francis not only traverses physical geographies but also the terrain of literary history. He reminds us of stories and myths, encounters between East and West, the clashes of civilisations. From youthful island tales of Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island, to the choices made by reclusive geniuses like Henry David Thoreau and Bruce Chatwin, Francis harvests cultural references that are likely to whet the appetite of even the most hardened extroverts.
The unique framing of the narrative—with tiny islands of texts floating along the pages, as it were—is perhaps the most sophisticated homage Francis could have paid to his subject and lifelong obsession. For islanders around the world, whether they are living in one or feel spiritually marooned, his book holds up a mirror that reveals the answers to many questions they have long asked of themselves.