Dr. Matthew Prendel is an enigma. Attractive, quiet, independently wealthy – he is the perennial subject of cocktail party gossip. The most persistent rumor being that he was once shipwrecked on a deserted island. We’re told Prendel’s tale, the “true” version of what happened to him, from his lover. The conceit of the novel is that she, Phoebe Westore, is the author, not Flavia. The book is written in such a way as to support this illusion, opening with a preface where Phoebe explains her relationship to Dr. Prendel. She reveals the promise she made to Prendel to write down the story of the shipwreck only after his death. The Island of Last Truth is her fulfilling that promise.
We were lovers for almost seven years. One of my aims was to endure longer than his shipwreck. As if some kind of rivalry or a competition could be established with something like that. “You always want to defeat impossible opponents, Phoebe; opponents that aren’t even there. You take after your mother.” My victory has been bitter and, in truth, transient, because a “shipwreck” endures much longer than a shipwreck. It is like a lantern: it illuminates what you shine it on and the rest as well.
I don’t want to give too much away. The plot is full of unexpected shifts. Company wastes no time getting her protagonist onto the island and, once there, piles on the suspense. Prendel is not alone on the island. Nor does the story end with him escaping it. Nor is it all about him.
“…Part adventure story, part noir, and part mystery…”* I would add psychological thriller to that list. Laura McGloughlin has written a nuanced translation that captures all of the melancholia and foreboding of Flavia Company’s strange and wonderful novel. What works best in The Island of Last Truth is the perspective from which it is told. The main body of the book, describing Prendel’s experiences, are told to us in the third person by Phoebe. The rhythm of her voice remains consistent as it moves from Preface, to storytelling, and the end of the book where she attempts to fill the gaps in the story she’d been told. So fully realized a character is she that an image begins to form in the reader’s mind: of Phoebe listening to Prendel as he tells her his adventure. And then later writing it all down, occasionally pausing to stare into the distance, lost in her memories. It’s all very intimate. This is not only a book about a shipwreck, but about a woman trying to make sense of the enigmatic man with whom she had a relationship with for over seven years. A man, she comes to realize, she never knew at all.
This week’s Weekly Geeks asks you to choose a book that has been languishing on your bookshelf and ask that age old question, why haven’t I read this yet?
It’s a good meme and a good question. Because the first step is admitting you have a problem. I’m a compulsive book buyer. I’m tempted to go into a long, drawn out explanation touching on my first book memory, visits to the public library as a child, the constant re-arranging & reorganizing of my bookshelf at milestones of my life – but it’s probably safe to assume that most people reading this have the same problem. So let’s cut straight to the chase…
The Nautical Chart by Arturo Pèrez-Reverte (current shelf life: 1 year, 1 month) – This novel was bought during a vacation on Sanibel Island last year, probably at the same time I purchased The Flander’s Panel. If the bookmark stuck between the pages 34-35 is to be believed then this novel was engaged at some point. It’s the story of a hunt for sunken treasure, features a down trodden hero and a beautiful woman with questionable motives. The mystery is built around a lot of clever puzzles involving nautical maps and equipment. Overall it is the kind of book I’d gobble up in two sittings.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann is a different kind of mystery story altogether (current shelf life: 4-6 months). It’s the true account of the author’s modern day attempt of find out what happened to British explorer Percy Fawcett, who entered the Amazon in 1925 and never returned. Grann researches the history of Fawcett’s expeditions (up to & including his last) and examines his obsession with finding the City of Z. He also tells the stories of the explorers who went in search of Fawcett after his disappearance. All that alone would have made a good book, but Grann takes it one step further (of course he does, he’s a staff writer for The New Yorker). After stumbling onto a clue to the location of Fawcett’s last base camp, Grann makes his own journey into Bolivia in search of the man who disappeared 80+ years before.
Mellon: An American Life by David Cannadine (current shelf life: 1 year, 5 months) – Andrew J. Mellon, along with his contemporaries Rockefeller, Frick and Carnegie, was one of those robber barons at the turn of the century who lived life large. I love reading about these guys. They took bold risks, had fabulous homes, and left huge legacies. They were the great philanthropists of their time, making & giving millions, usually on the backs of their employees. Of that group I would argue that Mellon is the least well known and for reasons that can be easily understood. As the treasury secretary for 4 presidents leading into the Great Depression Andrew Mellon’s popularity has waned (let that be a lesson to you Ben Bernanke!). His part in the 1929 economic collapse has all but overshadowed his other achievements. These included one of the greatest gifts ever given to this country: The National Gallery of Art, which is at the heart of what has become the Smithsonian Collection.
There you have it. My confession. While I’d like to say that these are the only books gathering dust throughout my house, that would be a lie. And as we all know, lying is wrong.
So, I’m interested in hearing what other books are out there being neglected & wrongfully ignored. Please feel free to leave your confession… I mean comment… below.