One of the most ambitious and interesting novels of the last couple of years was Alice Thompson’s The Existential Detective. It ostensibly told the tale of private detective William Blake and his search for a missing person, but proved to be not so much a ‘whodunnit’, but a ‘who am I’? It was set in Edinburgh’s Portobello, although, as one reviewer said, the setting and tone were ‘more Twin Peaks than Firth of Forth’.
Thompson’s follow up, Burnt Island, takes the oddness, mystery and literary allusions of the previous novel and uses them to even greater effect this time round. The Existential Detective was good, but Burnt Island is one of the books of this year, one which will give up something new with every reading and which will mean something different to every reader. To suggest it is layered with meaning is understatement in the extreme.
It is unashamedly literary and clever, without being pretentious. The quote from Plato’s Republic that precedes the story is from one of many texts and tales that were brought to mind as I read, but it is perhaps the most important one as the book is all about searching for the self and for ideas, as well as the problem with the existence of others. At one point the central protagonist, Max Long, is literally left looking at shadows as he is trapped in a cave, but by the time this happens you will be overwhelmed with what has unfolded, and what it all means, and that will just be one more reference to tick off against all the others.
Max Long is a writer who arrives at Burnt Island (very similar to the real Burntisland, but notably just different enough to be significant) struggling to write his next novel . He meets James Fairfax, a possible benefactor and fellow writer, whose novel Lifeblood has brought him fame, fortune and a life which immediately appeals to Max. James lives with the mysterious and beguiling Rose, and she becomes only one of James’s ‘possesions’ which Max desires. What unfolds is a mystery, (with two missing persons, and so much more), which is also a commentary on writing, self obsession and the complexity of the artistic process. Originally wanting to write something very literary, Max decides to write a horror instead, and it is the mix of those two genres that Thompson has mastered here.
Every name, place and scene appears to be loaded with deliberate reference, should you choose to look for it. The feel of life on Thompson’s Burnt Island is one which has shades of Dante’s Inferno, William Blake, The Tempest, Faust, Dracula, but also The Shining, The Stepford Wives, The Story of O, Henry Miller, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, and that’s on the first reading. I can guarantee on a second reading I could come up with many more. There are references to literary and philosophical ideas such as the succubus and incubus, the ego and the id, dreams, existential theory, and the doppelganger, as well as demons, ghosts and shape-shifters. This is a book that can be read on many levels.
Max’s time on the island spirals out of control as his relationships with its inhabitants grows every more complex. There is apparent friendship and betrayal, father/son relationships, sex and desire (a lot of sex and desire), what feels like love, regret and soul searching, but none of these provide satisfying answers, or even seem real. Max is always narrating, not only for us, but for himself, keeping a distance while always involved. In fact both writers, Long and Fairfax, can’t help but see people and circumstance as something which can ultimately give them what they desire above all else, to be successful. Successful, but also well regarded. That is the thing for which they would sell their soul.
Every writer should read Burnt Island and see if they recognise something of themselves. My guess is that, if they are honest, they will, and they may not like what they see. It is a terrifying portrait of the difficult process of writing, but is also less than flattering about the sort of people who would even attempt it, or at least asks them to question their motives. Thompson paints the writer as someone to whom everything is potential material, and shows clearly the affect that that can have on the themselves and those around them. This is a satire in the classical sense, one which exposes vanity, vice and ambition and holds them up not only to comment on present day writing, but the culture in which people write.
Alice Thompson is on at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the 20th August with Pippa Goldschmidt, and I for one will be there…