Islands have played a hugely important role in literature right from the start, both as locations and as metaphors, and sometimes even as characters. We've compiled a list of some of the greatest island books. It includes four Nobel Prize winners, and at least two works that spawned their own literary genres.
1. The Odyssey, Homer, 8th century BC
The second oldest work of Western literature still in existence, The Odyssey is one of the foundation stones for all that has come afterwards. Its central figure Odysseus (or Ulysses) is trying to get home, ten years after the Trojan war, and he visits a series of islands on his way. These include the island of the Lotus Eaters, Circe’s island, Thrinacia and Ogygia, home of the nymph Calypso. Back home in Ithaca, Odysseus’ wife Penelope – who believes him to be dead – is trying to choose between her 108 suitors.
2. Utopia, Thomas More, 1516
The book which brought a new word to the English language, Utopia begins with a sharp critique of Europe in the early sixteenth century, then describes a fictional island in the New World, where many of the old ills have been overcome. A welfare state, equality of the sexes, no private property, religious freedom: the island's society is, in many ways, a model one. Yet More’s text is subtle and ambiguous, and Utopia is never quite the perfect land it seems. Twenty years after the book was first published, More was executed by King Henry VIII of England, and was later made a Catholic saint.
3. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719
Probably the most iconic of all island books. Even if you haven't read it, you know the story: man is shipwrecked; man spends many years alone on an island; man is rescued. Defoe took inspiration from the true story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish buccaneer who was marooned for four years on an uninhabited island in the Southern Seas. Selkirk's eventual rescue was widely reported, and his story inspired Defoe to turn his hand to fiction, having suffered a string of unsuccessful forays into business and publishing. The novel was a huge success and has continued to be popular since it first appeared in 1719. Most recently it secured second place in The Guardian's series on the 100 best novels of all time, where critic Robert McCrum declared it 'English literature at its finest'.
4. Treasure Island, R. L. Stevenson, 1883
Drunken pirates, buried gold and a cast of characters with some of the finest names ever to grace the page, this coming-of-age classic is probably the most popular island book the world has yet known. And then there's the marvellous songs: “Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” This is a classic that never gets old.
5. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, 1927
A beacon of high modernism, Woolf's novel is a bold and unusual tale. The steam-of-consciousness narrative unfolds via the thoughts of members of the Ramsay family, and is focused on trips they make to Skye. Confused childhood emotions effuse amid adult concerns on art, love, life and death, resulting in a profoundly psychological tale, and one its author thought to be the very best of all her works. Beyond that, there are some simply sublime moments of narrative bliss: 'The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness'.
6. The Old Man and The Sea, Ernest Hemingway, 1952
Cuba and the Gulf Stream are the settings for this muscular tale of man against nature from the master of economical prose. On the surface it's a story about an old man's battle to catch a big fish, but read a little deeper and biblical parallels soon surface, alongside themes of mortality and lost identity. This is a story that lingers long in the imagination, by the first of our Nobel Prize laureates.
7. Lord of the Flies, William Golding, 1954
Lord of the Flies is, in a sense, an extended thought experiment. Golding asked himself what would happen if a group of young boys found themselves abandoned on an island, without any adult supervision. The answer, and the resulting novel, is as convincing as it is horrifying. The boys quickly develop their own micro society, with rules, hierarchies and myths, and almost as quickly that society begins to break down. Savagery and tragedy ensue. Golding’s pessimistic story about power and human nature is one of the great novels of the twentieth century, and is still widely taught in schools.
8. The Fish Can Sing, Halldór Laxness, 1957
Álfgrímur is an inquisitive young Icelander who lives in a rural cottage with his ageing adoptive grandparents. They share their home with a group of oddballs, each of whom opens something of the world beyond to the boy as he awaits the arrival of very special guest – an event that promises to change everything. Two years before the publication of this novel (and one year after Hemingway), Halldór Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He remains the only Icelandic laureate.
9. A House for Mr Biswas, V.S. Naipaul
The novel that brought V.S. Naipaul to the world’s attention is set in rural Trinidad, where Mohun Biswas tries and fails to make the best of his life. Considered unlucky from the moment of his birth, Biswas inadvertently causes the death of his father and the breakup of his family. Later, he finds himself overwhelmed by the family of his wife, whom he has married almost by accident, but his desire for independence and for a house of his own remain strong. The book is widely considered the best example of Naipaul’s masterful prose.
10. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys, 1966
The 'mad woman in the attic' is given a voice in this cornerstone of post-colonial fiction. Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress and the wife of a man who, though never named, is understood to be the dashing Mr Rochester of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Cosway's tragic narrative is delivered in three ceaselessly compelling parts, each brimming with a heady mix of lechery and treachery. A deep sense of injustice – racial and sexual – simmers throughout.
11. Greenvoe, George Mackay Brown, 1972
The Orkney writer’s best known prose work is the story of an island community threatened then overwhelmed by a mysterious project, called Operation Black Star. Published a few years before the arrival of the oil industry in Orkney and Shetland, the book has come to seem prophetic; and it serves as an allegory for the ongoing conflict between traditional communities and industrial development everywhere. In his autobiography, Mackay Brown claimed that Operation Black Star ‘was simply one monstrous symbol of dispersed forces and currents and tendencies which, for more than a century already, had been undermining an ancient way of life’.
12. The Summer Book, Tove Jansson, 1972
Though best known outside her home country of Finland for the series of children’s books she wrote featuring the Moomins, Tove Jansson was also a wonderful writer of adult fiction. Featuring an old woman and her six-year-old granddaughter, The Summer Book retains the warmth and quirkiness of her children’s stories, but adds a layer of Nordic melancholy to the mix. There is no plot to speak of – Sophia and her grandmother simply share a summer on an island, talking, eating, laughing and exploring – yet this remains a charming and beautiful book, with prose that sparkles from beginning to end.
13. Boyhood Island, Karl Ove Knausgaard, 2014
Part three of the auto-fiction My Struggle series by the brooding Norwegian. No detail is spared in his often banal, yet always compelling narrative. It's like the writing equivalent of posting photos of your breakfast on Instagram. And it's just as addictive, with Knausgaard relating the minutiae of life as a boy growing up on the island of Tromøya, under constant fear of his father. The series has been an astounding success in Norway, and critics in Europe and North America have fallen over themselves to praise the newly translated work.