Could a small nation, with a history of being part of a larger whole, become independent with its own version of the pound and its own parliament, no army, but under the protection of NATO due to its strategic position? Could it not only survive, but thrive? It’s an intriguing question, and anyone interested in finding the answer should read Margaret Elphinstone’s 2002 novel ‘Hy Brasil’. It has plenty of political interest, and intrigue, but it is also one of the most outright entertaining reads of the books featured in ‘Indelible Ink’; a boy’s own adventure with adult concerns.
Imagine Robert Louis Stevenson were writing today. There could still be tales of pirates, smugglers, island life and rumours of treasure, but now the contraband would be more likely drugs than pieces of eight. All of these things are referenced or alluded to in ‘Hy Brasil’, which is about an island of that name; one which runs its own affairs, and where the past and present are inextricably linked.
Nothing is as it seems, with even the opening premise built on deception. A writer, Sidony Redruth, has been commissioned to write the first ever travel book about the island after winning first prize in a competition. However, she faked her winning entry, and now struggles with the resulting guilt, while also realising that she has lucked her way to the opportunity of a life time. In the opening paragraph she proclaims “…I think I’d rather have travelling than sex.”, which seem more like a justification than a proclamation.
When we first meet Sidony she is sitting in Caliban’s Fast Food Diner, and the allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ is not only deliberate, it is just one of the myriad of literary references which are peppered regularly throughout. She picks up a flier for ‘Ishmael’s Whale Watching Tours’, finds out about places on the island such as Hogg’s Cove, Dorado and Mt Prosper (there’s a map at the beginning of the book so readers have a clear sense of place). She discovers that the four founding fathers of Hy Brasil have the surnames ‘Baskerville’, Hawkins’, ‘Honeyman’ and’ Hook’, and the local newspaper is ‘The Hesperides Times’, and that’s all in the first chapter. There is even an ‘Isle of Despair’.
This is not a case of Elphinstone showing off her bookshelves; the sense of playfulness is unavoidable and constant. Hy Brasil itself is, according to Wikipedia, “a phantom island which was said to lie in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Ireland. In Irish myths it was said to be cloaked in mist, except for one day each seven years, when it became visible but still could not be reached.” As Sidony sits in Caliban’s, she is waiting for the famous fog to lift. You are never allowed to forget that this is an island of fiction, in more ways than one, and there are plenty of references which remind you that the novel is a construction of the imagination, (one of the coast guards’ lockers even bears the name ‘R. Elphinstone’). As a result you are never sure what to believe.
For a musical interlude, I thought long and hard and came up with nothing, so I decided to go route one simply to please myself. From her compilation album, ‘Island Life’ this is Grace Jones’ version of ‘La Vie En Rose’, and it is, appropriately, one of my Desert Island Discs:
‘Hy Brasil’ is a novel which could be described as magical realist, and there is more than a hint of the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Louis de Bernieres. There is certainly the romance and mystery which both of those writers do so well, but also there are the political and social details of the strange lands they are writing about, which is where the realism resides. Elphinstone outlines the public transport system of Hy Brasil, the exchange rate, how the parliament decided which side of the road to drive on, and how trade was maintained. If that all sounds dull as dishwater, then I have misled you. It gives detailed background to the other strands in the novel which lends them a reality which they may not deserve. As a result the events seem even more strange. When the land itself, a character in its own right, appears to rebel against those who inhabit it, you have a clear sense of just what it is it may be rebelling against.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: One of the most eagerly anticipated films of recent years is out in the next month; Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under The Skin’, which stars Scarlett Johansson as an earth bound alien who prowls the streets of Glasgow looking for men.
Sounds unlikely? Well, next month’s novel will look at the source material for the film, Michel Faber’s book of the same name, which is quite a remarkable read. Dark, deadly, macabre and mysterious, if you haven’t experienced it yet, I can promise you are in for a strange and intriguing treat.