Huddled in the sea off the coast of Ireland is a fourth Aran Island, a secret island peopled by the lost, findable only in moments of despair. Whether drowned at sea, trampled by the counter-reformation, or exiled for clinging to the dead, no outsiders reach the island without giving in to dark emotion.
Time and again, The Fourth Island weaves a hypnotic pattern with its prose, presaging doom before walking back through the sweet and sour moments of lives not yet lost. It beautifully melds the certainty of loss with the joys of living, drawing readers under like the tide.
I always get a kick out of authors who get non-traditional with their narrative style, especially in short fiction. Sarah Tolmie’s novella has a plot of sorts, or perhaps several plots, or perhaps no real plot at all.
The book is mostly interwoven vignettes of the lives of a few people who wash up on a lost fourth island of Aran at the mouth of Galway Bay. Meg, the 17th century camp follower to Cromwell’s army, Nellie, the deaf girl living rough, Jim, the malcontent, and Philip, the rebellious priest. Their lives intersect with each other and with the island locals. Brought to the island by moments of great despair, they find a kind of peace in their new home, even if for some it is short lived and incomplete.
There are two elements that didn’t quite work for me. First, I really struggled with the depiction of deafness here. While Nellie doesn’t think of being deaf as having a disease that needs to be cured, the island apparently does. Hearing people think she was given a gift, but she often longs to go back to being deaf. Tolmie’s handling of this was clunky at best. Second, toward the end of the novella Tolmie tries to explain how the island magic works. This is a story that works best when nothing is explained, where the mystery holds and the reader never gets a firm grip on what’s happening or why.
The Fourth Island is a beautifully written novella. It’s gloomy yet romantic, like a stormy sea battering against the shores of a desolate island. And the cover, by the great Rovina Cai, is stunning. The story isn’t as strong as it could be, but it’s worth a read.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.