Caught by the River

Island Dreams: reviewed

Nick Small | 12th November 2020

Nick Small delves into Gavin Francis’s Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession — an exploration of isolation and connectedness based on thirty years of travel.

I opened the first pages of this fascinating geographical and metaphysical romp through the world of islands on one of my favourite islands — Corfu. Yes, it’s Greece, but in terms of landscape and culture it’s a world away from the mainland, which is just a few miles away. Occupied by a succession of invaders, its essence owes as much to the Venetians and the Brits as it does to mainland Greece. There’s even a cricket pitch in Kerkyra.

Like many islands, it defines itself as separate. Different. Something we know a bit about as an island nation. On the cusp of pandemonium…we may find that our sense of separate doesn’t always play out too well in practice. Who knows.

Island Dreams is not a straightforward book with a simple premise, or linear narrative. Author Gavin Francis, a GP and world traveller, has spent a lifetime obsessed with islands — and, as is evident in the book’s richly illustrated maps, their cartography. He takes us island hopping through an archipelago of ideas, thoughts, reflections and stories; each separate but connected by the journey. One minute you’ll be with him birding on an island nature reserve, the next you’re reading any one of the myriad thoughts about islands that he has curated from all manner of thinkers, from Defoe to Thoreau.

Yes, there’s travelogue, in Skerry-sized chunks, but primarily, you’re immersed in an exploration of what islands mean: escape, paradise, solitude, find yourself, lose yourself, lose everything else. The romantic idea of island isolation, it turns out, is only appealing when you can actually escape. Not for nothing have islands been prisons; Napoleon, Mandela and in some ways Alexander Selkirk discovered that being surrounded by the briny sea isn’t necessarily something to be desired under all circumstances.

Though the barrage of ideas collected in a lifelong obsession are not always easily digested in one go, Island Dreams is a book that you can open anywhere, knowing that whichever islet you land upon, you’ll be rewarded with some gem of an idea or traveller’s yarn.


Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession is out now, published by Canongate. Read a previously published extract here.

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