Reviewer: Linda Hepworth
Publisher: Avon (Division of Harper Collins Publishers Ltd) 16th September 2021
ISBN: 978-0008467364 PB
When eight people arrive on the beautiful but remote Buidseach Island, they are ready for the challenge of a lifetime: to live alone for one year.
Eighteen months later, a woman is found in an isolated fishing village. She’s desperate to explain what happened to her: how the group fractured and friends became enemies; how they did what they must to survive until the boat came to collect them; how things turned deadly when the boat didn’t come…
But first Maddy must come to terms with the devastating secret that left them stranded, and her own role in the events that saw eight arrive and only three leave.
The premise behind the tv reality show is that it will be a social experiment to see how, following a disaster which has rendered the mainland an unsafe place to be, a group of survivors will cooperate to govern themselves and form a cohesive social group. The four men and four women who are selected to take part in this project each have a particular skill which should enable them to achieve this. Using only the natural resources available on the remote island, plus any useful ‘flotsam and jetsam’ washed up on the shoreline (and by discovering some useful caches secreted by the TV company at various well-hidden locations across the island!), can they work together as a team to survive and create a functioning society. For the year that they are on the island they’ll have no means of communicating with the outside world but, as they’re each equipped with a body camera, their day-by-day activities and interactions will be recorded, as will their video diaries … although for anyone who has something to hide, cameras can always be turned off!
Maddy, the narrator of the story, is a young woman who is at a crisis point in her life when she applies for a place on the island. Following a clash with her boss she lost her job as a botanist and, feeling rather aimless and rootless, has been marking time by doing temporary office jobs. She’s also still grieving the recent deaths of her parents and believes that she’ll be able to ‘find herself’ if only she could escape for a time … ‘from my life, my grief, from myself’. However, as the reader almost immediately discovers, she was home-schooled from the age of eleven, was over-protected by her mother, is socially awkward and finds it difficult to make friends, so it seems unlikely that she’ll find it easy to fit in … but we also know from the start that she survives when so many of the others don’t. How was she able to do that? As the story unfolds, with the occasional flash-forwards to her post-rescue life both filling in some gaps and revealing various ‘secrets’, the true horrors of what transpired during her time on the island, and what she had to do to survive, gradually emerge.
I think it will hardly come as a surprise to any reader that in this artificially constructed set-up it’s unlikely to be long before tensions will appear within the group, or that the initial spirit of cooperation and excitement about facing the challenge of surviving for a year with such limited resources will soon be threatened by various power-plays between the group members, bullying behaviour, sexual-tension, scapegoating and, as food supplies become scarcer, an increasing reluctance to share what remains. Although there were moments when I thought that some aspects of the group dynamics and the increasingly dysfunctional behaviour were exaggerated, most of the time I felt that there was enough credibility in the author’s depiction of the darker side of human behaviour to make it possible for me to remain engaged with the story. I think we’re all aware that, for any such ‘reality’ show to achieve good ratings the participants’ character traits are carefully (even cynically!) chosen to ensure maximum confrontational, bullying behaviour, acrimonious power-struggles and scapegoating. However, what did feel psychologically credible was that in such extreme conditions, and without any external restraints, all those traits which have been so carefully identified are likely to be exaggerated in the fight for survival!
As Maddy’s is the sole voice the reader hears, everything which happens on the island, and after she is finally rescued, is seen solely from her perspective and therefore questions about her reliability as a narrator are inevitable. Although as a reader I can recognise that this added a particularly visceral element to experiencing the escalating tension and fear she was feeling, particularly following her exclusion from the group, I did find it frustrating not to get anyone else’s perspective. This meant that whilst details of her back story enabled me to make sense of her behaviour and interactions, making her character feel fully developed, the lack of such information about the other characters made them feel rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. Whilst I have no objection to having deeply-flawed characters in a story (they’re usually much more interesting!) I have to admit that there were moments when I felt almost despairing about how awful this lot were … I found myself longing for some examples of genuine kindness and compassion!
I appreciated the many ways in which the author made excellent use of the remote-island setting, the total lack of contact with the outside world and the changing weather conditions to create an ever-increasing sense of fear and tension. I also enjoyed the amount of detail she included about the plant and animal life on the island and the challenges the group faced in their attempts to live off the land … with some timely reminders that successful foraging is dependent on accurate identification!
Although I found that some aspects of the plotting required considerable suspension of disbelief, there was enough psychological credibility in the group dynamics to retain my interest and make this a thought-provoking story to read. I think that some of the issues it raises would provoke considerable discussion in book groups.