Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Isle by Claire Robertson

Isle by Claire Robertson is one of those books that, even after much consideration, I find difficult to pigeonhole. And it's been preying on my mind awhile now, weeks after I have finished it. First off, it was the cover that got me – I admit I'm a sucker for striking covers. But also, in my mission to read more African writers, this was certainly intriguing when I cast an eye over the blurb.

It's not a novel, but rather two novellas that have been glomped together, with the only real connection being that both take place on an island and feature the lives of women – though they are centuries apart.

I – Forth from this Place takes up the bulk of the offering, and is the tale of a community of women living on the Isle of St Katharine. They are not nuns, nor have they sworn an oath of celibacy, but they do live as a community of nuns would – cloistered and independent of the world of men. Yet their Magistra Lutgard is well aware of the fragility of the equilibrium their liminal space inhabits. She is anxious not to agitate the church or nearby community too much – for in her time witch hunts are not uncommon. It doesn't help that one of her women, Mechthild, is restless, striving to be more, do more. Find her own way in the world in a manner that is unconventional for its time.

None of this is helped when a Moorish peddler is rescued from a near-drowning, and serves as a muse for Mechthild in her artistic aspirations. She makes a book of hours, but instead of following conventions, her lifelike representations of the people around her surprise and astound those who are not accustomed to seeing representations of their faces laid down on paper. This act of hers has far-reaching consequences, not only for Mechthild, but for the lives her work touches.

II – Uxo brings us to a post-WWII setting where Lily Kinsella, who is higher-ranking than her fellow officer, John Burge, are tasked to recover or destroy old ordnance. Yet from the start, it is clear that all is not well with Lily, nor her relationship with Burge. Their work takes them to remote places, and it's clear  this unbalanced relationship between the two, carries equal parts resentment and reverence on Burge's part in the face of Lily's seeming indifference to him. 

Their travels bring them to an unnamed island that serves as a penitentiary, where Lily's interactions with teenage Iris and her prison warden father stir trouble, and eventually bring the issues between Lily and Burge to a head. Part coming-of-age story, part remembering of a shrouded past, this novella offers readers a careful dance between withholding and revealing in a way that exposes the fragility of human lives in all their ugliness and beauty.

Neither of these novellas comes to a head in a way that is satisfying – but then again, it's not for an ending or great denouement that one would read, but rather the savouring of each line of prose that is so exquisitely crafted that it is liquid poetry. And that's all I'll say on the matter. See for yourself.

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