I went out to buy Burnt Island at the urging of a review by John Self in the Guardian – you can read his take here, if you like. It’s a toothsome take on the novel, summing it up on a quick heel-turn.
In short, because you might have taken my advice and gone off to read Self’s review (thank you for returning, by the way) Burnt Island is a weird, unsettling shard of satire, specifically on the writing life. The protagonist, Max Long, a long-term writer low on grand successes, wins a place on the mysterious, other-Atlantic Burnt Island.This is to afford him three months writing time, in which he plans to embark on shoving aside his literary principles and creating the ultimate horror best seller. Of course, the crumbling begins right away with Long encountering the warm, suspiciously welcoming recluse-author James Fairfax. and is beautifully done.
But where is the line to be drawn, between Long’s fictional reality and his fictional design? Little acidic drips referencing The Shining fall early and with a Jack Nicholsonesq wink, as do echoes of many other film and literary horrors. The levels of rooms, the seabound setting of The Bloody Chamber. Though not strictly horror, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, as Self mentions. And The Wicker Man, with the isolated setting and slightly off-kilter locals. But why is Thompson signaling these parallels? When odd sights – or are they delusions? – start to plague Long, is this par for the course for a writer on the edge, or are we the readers submitting to the self-aware tugs of authorial intent? And why? The ground is tricky, but a tricky we can navigate, like a bog made of raincoats and signs pointing the way. The text remains slippery.
Yet Thompson rolls her tiny, dry sentences at us like circles of bone, all white and hard with marrow inside. Often with a dark, urbane humour. After Max is attacked by Skuas, he takes a visit to the doctor, who dabs the cuts on his scalp some TCP. The sting seems to hurt him worse than the earlier Hitchcockian incident:
He felt he had never known such pain since his agent, on reading his recent manuscript, asked him where the rest of it was.
The self-pitying writer is both willing and unwilling victim of his actions – as writer, as failed husband, as failure at faking his way to a blockbuster, as possible dupe – just as the police officer from The Wicker Man condemns himself by his investigations, and cold blind piety. And we await with puzzled glee the unraveling, in all its ambiguities. Receptive in the way of large, wheeling sea birds, above the jut of a stony, sinister coastline.