Review:“I am an Island” by Tamsin Calidas (2020) Assessment 3 out of 10

I am sorry but fundamentally I did not like this book. It is well written, so you read paragraphs impressed by the writing style, but begin to tire as you learn nothing new and nothing happens. I would start a chapter with enthusiasm, but then skimmed through to the end, hoping that something was going to happen in the next chapter.

Calidas doesn’t name the island. She tells us nothing of its past.  It has obviously close links with the ferry port, Oban. I know Oban, & several of the Hebridean Islands to which it is linked. Whilst islands have similarities, they each have a sense of place of their own. Enquiry confirmed that the island described by Calidas is Lismore 15km long and 2 km wide, its area 26sq km, its population 192 in 2011. I haven’t visited it but once I knew where it was I could understand the book better.

Nor are virtually any of the islanders named. This is unsurprising as Calidas has very little to write positively about any of them.

She arrives married to Rab. At least as portrayed, there is not much to like about him either. She is keen to have children and, when none are conceived, undergoes unsuccessful IVF treatment in Glasgow. Whilst she is away, he remains on Lismore working the croft and becomes involved with another woman. He then leaves. You think, “why on earth would she stay?”

She raises sheep putting a prize winning tup to the ewes. It dies, she suspects, poisoned by an islander or islanders who disapprove of her assumption of a male role in managing procreation of her flock or just by winning a prize in their competition. She disinters the tup and has its remains tested. Whether it was poisoned or not is unproven.

Apparently ignorant of Scottish rights to roam, sunbathing naked, she is surprised by and objects to visitors. She also doesn’t like it that locals continue to call her property Hector’s Croft, presumably after an earlier occupant.

Her beliefs in the female deity and of women’s role in society and of deer as shamanistic are interesting, but neither explained nor explored. Are they ideas, which she believed her readers would share & so didn’t need to be explained? Clearly they are ideas that were not shared by many other islanders.

Lacking funds and food she survives by foraging. She swims in all seasons. My experience is that we cycle, paddle and swim in the sea to build community and friendship, as much as for the physical enjoyment & experience. They are not pursuits to undertake alone.

She seeks to adopt a child first from China & then the UK, but is unsuccessful as a single woman living in a remote location.

Having owned a house in Brittany for over thirty years and lived in Jersey, I know that to survive and enjoy such places you need to form friendships and be part of the community, however defined. Calidas doesn’t do this. She may have been unlucky, her relationship with other islanders poor. To get on, it does seem she needed to have been more understanding about local society and culture.  She spends nearly 300 pages and more than 14 years trying to prove she could be an Island. She instead confirms John Donne’s wisdom in writing, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.

I wondered whether rather than being presented as a work of redacted non-fiction or autobiography, it might have worked better as a novel. Some humour or joy might have helped too.

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