Book review: I Am An Island By Tamsin Calidas

Tamsin Calidas’s story is one that initially reads like a Jenny Colgan novel: young woman working in the media in London seeks different life and moves to a remote Scottish island to find it. Hilarity – and usually romance – ensues.

Tamsin Calidas

Yet, for Calidas, hilarity most definitely did not ensue and the sadness of her story, while appearing almost far-fetched is all too real.

After escaping London following a violent incident which leaves her shaken and reluctant to stay there, her island life is not straightforward. She suffers fertility problems and her marriage to husband Rab breaks down. She has accidents which leave her with two broken hands, she suffers a serious respiratory illness and loses her father – with whom she hints at a troubled past relationship. Her mother develops dementia, and Cristall – her only true friend on the island – is killed in a car accident.

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Perhaps above all, her reception on the island – which particular island it is kept deliberately anonymous – is nothing short of hostile. Some of the people she meets come across as caricatures of Outlander characters – “Maybe next time you’ll invite us in to share some proper Highland hospitality with your good self,” one unpleasant man leers.

The men are borderline sexually abusive and the women are barely less unpleasant, making constant digs about Calidas’s childless status and the colour of her skin – her father is Asian South African. A scene where she describes a villager asking her if she is “not ashamed” to be seen with her dark-skinned father is so extreme and shocking that it made me wonder why Calidas would want to stay in this bastion of prejudice.

Calidas’ writing is beautiful and lyrical, making her memoir strangely compelling. Yet it is difficult to see the author as the completely innocent party in this battle of cultures between the apparently old-fashioned islanders and the incomer from Notting Hill. Her own prejudices often slip out. When she first speaks to Cristall – to whom Calidas has offered her services as a gardener – she freely admits that she is thrilled to hear an “educated English accent”.

Any other friendships she does make – a scene near the end refers to her being surrounded by “harmonious voices” and “laughter” – she skips over, seemingly preferring to focus on the hostility. Perhaps they have come out in the editing of the book, but it does suggest that there must be something hidden that is more positive about island life which convinces her to stay and settle there.

“There was a time when I longed to leave this island, but a meshing of circumstances held me down and that feeling passed,” she says in the final chapter. It is hard to tell if, after the publication of this memoir, she will once again be faced with a resurgence of the hostility she felt in the early years, or if her fellow islanders will little care about the scratchings of an “incomer”. Whatever they feel, as an adopted Scot myself, I found I Am An Island an uncomfortable yet beautiful read.

I Am An Island, by Tamsin Calidas, Doubleday, £16.99