Thursday, 22 September 2011


Christopher Priest, one of our guests of honour at last year’s Grimm Up North festival has a new novel out, THE ISLANDERS. We think Grimmlins should read it, and here’s why.

Christopher Priest is a master of illusion, defter than any of the magicians who populate perhaps his most famous work, THE PRESTIGE. The only one of his books, thus far, to be filmed, this tale of feuding magicians might seem a natural subject for a medium as concerned with illusion as the Cinema - and yet it was nevertheless long considered unfilmable until Christopher Nolan took up the challenge. Nolan made a creditable job of translating the novel’s complex Chinese box structure and multiple unreliable perspectives into cinematic language, but only by simplifying and streamlining some of the book’s complexities.

Priest’s other novels might prove even more resistant to film adaptation. At last year’s Grimm Up North, he spoke wittily and with surprising honesty about the realities of such adaptation, both from the point of view of having one of his own books transformed into a big-budget Hollywood feature, and also as a writer who has produced “novelisations“ of successful movies. As an author whose own work so often deals with the slippery nature of perception, it is perhaps not surprising that he should focus particularly on the problems of (mis)interpretation that invariably occur when translating someone else’s ideas from one medium to another. Priest seems more attuned than most to this particular issue, perhaps because themes of interpretation and understanding loom so large in his own fiction.

Nothing in Christopher Priest’s books is ever quite as it initially seems. The prose itself is deceptive; its elegant, clipped, formal precision, its apparently cool objectivity, mask a world and characters that are the exact opposite. Here, landscape and environment can suddenly turn themselves inside out, forming new shapes and new structures. Narrators are not simply unreliable, they are delusional, or pathological, or blatant liars, even to themselves. Existing already in a work of fiction, they have an unsettling tendency to further fictionalise the world they inhabit, so that our sense of that world grows ever more tenuous.

For Priest, reality is not simply subjective; it has always had an element of the virtual about it. It can shift and twist under you. It cannot be locked down. This is particularly true of the various stories set in and around the fictional collection of Islands known as The Dream Archipelago. The name is a good indication of the environment here. This is as much a landscape of the mind, of the imagination, as it is a real place.

So it is somewhat startling that Priest’s new novel, THE ISLANDERS should present itself initially as a tour guide to the Dream Archipelago. Except, of course, it isn’t. Far from it. Filled with allusions to earlier stories, but never self-indulgently so, the book’s ostensible exploration of the people and places of the Archipelago only serves to emphasise their unknowability. And our guide is someone with a very definite agenda. Gradually, a story of rivalry, trickery and murder begins to emerge. But how much of the story is “real”…?

THE ISLANDERS is out now. We heartily recommend it. It will widen the gates of your perception. Steve Balshaw