My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There’s a difficulty sometimes when considering picture books and that difficulty is this: they are inescapable. There’s always a level of semiotic interpretation that occurs with a sign, be that sign a word or an image, but I think that the breadth of interpretation narrows when we think about images. If I write the word “cat” for example, what do you think of? A kitten? An adult cat? Sleeping? Jumping? Eating? And what colour is it? Is it alone? With a family? Being stroked?
Now, if I show you a picture of a cat I am showing you something that you cannot easily shift into another context. I am showing you the cat that I see when I write the word, I am showing you my cat. Of course you can then take that image and lay it on top of your image of cat, but I am dictating, however briefly, what I want you to see.
And that, all of that, is something which struck me when thinking about The Island. It is an inescapable book.
It starts with the front cover, that oppressive, dark block of colour, rearing away from you. It’s perspective, yes, but it’s also something else. It almost doesn’t want you to touch it. It is a book that comes with a built in recoil.
Ironic, really, when we finally open it up and see what’s inside. It is the story of a man who is shipwrecked on an island. The pages are full of white space, rolling acres of it that in this case act as a focaliser. There is nowhere else for us to look so we look at the man. The man who “wasn’t like them.” We look at him, his silent nudity, and we try to find this difference that is written in the text in him.
It is not there.
And so, as we realise the intense futility and awfulness of this story and what is about to happen, we are locked in the role of passive onlooker. We cannot change what is about to happen, we cannot tell the islanders to stop – being – so – wrong – and we cannot do anything but watch. And we can’t walk away. That’s the thing about this book – it doesn’t let you go. It is the most uncomfortable and inescapable and brilliant of things.