Every now and then, a book stops you because of its difference: an unexpected plot, captivating and convincing characters, or a structure that surprises. Emily Brugman's debut novel, The Islands, delivers on all three. Set on the little-known Abrolhos Islands, offshore from Geraldton, Western Australia, this novel explores the lives of Finnish migrant families who lived and worked on these islands during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Brugman has drawn inspiration from her own family history. It's fascinating to see Australia from the perspective of newcomers. Australians were not always welcoming, often suspicious of people from elsewhere. Add this to natural Finnish reserve, and you begin to understand how difficult it may have been for migrants to find a sense of home here.
Landscape strongly shapes Brugman's novel. The Abrolhos Islands are flat and windswept, rich in marine life. The book is set prior to the western rock lobster boom, and life is hard and spare. The islanders make do with little, yet their lives are laden with nature and adventure, discovery and loss, family, friends.
Through Brugman's salty sensual prose and the eyes of islanders, the reader experiences the "never-ceasing winds", the freedom and wild air, the tidal currents and storms, "the afternoon sun hammering their eyeballs", the haunting proximity of the wreck of the Batavia.
The fishermen and their families live in "corrugated-iron camps" on the fringes of the islands from which "a series of topsy-turvy jetties extend into the sea like fractured finger bones". The "hardy saltbush is as unyielding as the limestone earth underfoot".
The narrative centres around the Saari family: Alva and Onni and, later, their daughter Hilda. They come to Little Rat Island in the Abrolhos to take over the camp of Onni's brother, Nalle, who disappeared at sea. It's a hard life, but a strong community. The islands are both dangerous and magical.
In the off-season, families return to Geraldton where the children go to school. Alva has to work out how to connect with the local women. She often misreads them, but "each year, as her plants became more surefooted in the sandy soil, (so) too did she". Hilda has to navigate friendships with children who know nothing of her islands. Then, in holiday time, her family returns to the islands where she is "restored to her rugged self".
The Saaris are not the only focus of this book. Brugman laces together many other islander lives, creating a "novel within stories". The narrative is rich in Finnish language and culture. The Finns are "pale, quiet, sombre". They're extremely reserved: "There was once a Finn who loved his wife so much, he almost told her." Where they've come from "happiness was not something one was entitled to or expected to find".
The Finns are also wedded to omens and signs, "brought up on a confusing concoction of pagan superstition and Lutheran guilt". Random happenings can carry great meaning. There are traditions which must be adhered to, like the melting of the lead on New Year's Eve. As the lead cools, it creates shapes indicative of fortunes for the next year.
The Islands is a beautifully written novel, rich in metaphor. The sea represents life, distance, choice, separation. Pregnant Alva is "a tall and spindly swamp bird that had swallowed too big a fish". Grief shapes Onni through the loss of his brother: "Onni was a house with all its doors and windows closed".
The novel is divided into two parts, set on opposite sides of Australia. Life in the west is hard but full of wildness and youth. The east conveys another layer of difficulty: loss of dreams juxtaposed against the irony of a cray fishery boom shortly after the Saari family leaves the west.
Brugman explores mother-daughter relationships with insight and tenderness, like the inevitable friction that arises as young women mature. She also explores many other aspects of the other debris life tosses up, like babies, cancer, fraught relationships. Struggles are embedded in Finnishness, but transcend culture - because so many things we desire are universal, such as parents wanting something better for their children.
The Islands is a magical novel that transports the reader to another world. Brugman's depiction of nature is exceptional: the power of the natural world to touch and shape people, the gift of wilderness, the art of acceptance, the light, landscape, water, wildlife, fish, birds, sea.
Ultimately this novel leaves the reader with sense of connection to the islands, and a desire to know more. Like Brugman and her relatives, we find ourselves ensnared by "the secret pull of the current".
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