Romesh Gunesekera was born in Sri Lanka in 1954 and moved to Britain in 1971. His first novel Reef was short-listed in 1994 for both the Booker and the Guardian Fiction Prizes. Ever since, islands – real and imaginary – have played an important role in his books. This summer, he will be spending a month on the isle of Jura to work on his next novel, as part of the Scottish Book Trust’s Jura Malt Whisky Writer Retreat.
“In my first books I tried to shine a light on the island of Sri Lanka. In my fourth, Heaven’s Edge, I invented a new island in the Indian Ocean of the future and for that the first three of the books listed here were invaluable. In my most recent novel, The Match, the story took me to the islands I know best: Sri Lanka, Luzon in the Philippines and here – Britain – as I expanded my map of the imagined world.”
1. The Odyssey by Homer
The oldest story here, but remarkable for its freshness. It reads like a novel written today, rather than a story from 3,000 years ago. It has everything: terrific story, psychological depth, tenderness, wonderful language. Odysseus goes out to war as the great soldier, but comes back as the consummate storyteller.
2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
This book signals the birth of the novel in English, taking the reader from the known familiar world into a voyage of fiction. In the Preface, we are told that this is a found book: “no attempt has been made to polish the strong unstudied diction of the author, or to improve on his homely vigorous language.” We are invited to believe this is the true account of a mariner from York, who becomes a castaway on a tropical island, and we do. Fiction works. Crusoe’s life on the island tells us not only about survival and violence, but also society, religion and Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world.
3. An Historical Relation of Ceylon by Robert Knox
Although Robinson Crusoe is usually thought to be based on the experiences of Alexander Selkirk in the Pacific, Defoe may well have been influenced by this book. Published in 1681, it is the first book on Sri Lanka written in English. Knox was a sailor captured by the King of Kandy and kept for 20 years as one of about 1000 European detainees. It gives us a fascinating and detailed account of life in Sri Lanka during the 17th century. Knox wrote his book after he escaped from the island and gives three reasons for doing so: first, to thank God, secondly to let his relations know of his circumstances and thirdly, and most amazingly, to “exercise his hand to write” as he had been unable to do so during his captivity.
4. Island by Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s last novel is his utopia, fuelled by his experiments with mescaline. It begins with a shipwreck but Will Farnaby, the castaway, finds a paradise of reason created by people rather than nature. Huxley’s ideals of equality, compassion, humanism, science and art are all found on this imagined island of sanity. It is a counterpoint to his terrifying and better-known Brave New World.
5. The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
The only book written by this author and one of the most important Italian novels. As much about love as about Sicily at the time of Italian unification, it is complex but manages to retain a sense of intimacy that draws you into the world of changing Sicilian society. It should be read slowly to be appreciated.
6. Miguel Street by V S Naipaul
Naipaul’s first book, although published after two later ones, is the perfect introduction to his early fiction. Here a beautifully light comic touch brings the characters of his childhood street in Trinidad – Hat, Bogart, Popo – immediately to life. “What happening there, Bogart?” Hat asks at the beginning. At the end of the book, the narrator is at the airport preparing to leave his island for faraway England. He asks his mother “So this mean I was never going to come back here, eh?”
7. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
For me this is an uncharacteristic Greene novel: light and funny, sometimes almost whimsical despite the satire on bureaucracy, the Cold War and organisational cover-ups. Not as powerful as his best, but like all his fiction it is vivid, memorable and the story moves effortlessly between Cuba and England.
8. At Home with Miss Vanesa by E A Markham
E A (Archie) Markham’s most recent collection of linked stories spills out of Miss Vanesa’s Caribbean veranda with charming originality. His books of poetry and prose are extraordinarily free and witty: full of invention, autobiography and the real world of Montserrat, England and France. He weaves everything he knows into his unfettered writing and I even found myself on a page in this one. Sadly, he died in March this year, just as his recent books began to gain the attention they deserve.
9. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Strictly speaking this is not an island book, but I couldn’t resist putting it in. The book itself is like an island floating in a sea of stories. A big island, a big book. A whale. And like Sindbad I feel it is only right that I mistake the whale for an island. C L R James argues that Ahab in pursuit of the white whale is one of the few original and new characters created in the imagination since Shakespeare did his work. There is some truth in that.
10. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The list would not be complete without this book. One cannot imagine an island story without something from it flaring up in the mind, whether you have read the book or not: Admiral Benbow, the Hispaniola, Long John Silver or the Map.