Book review: Burnt Island by Alice Thompson

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WHAT makes a book happen? Where does literary inspiration come from? These are some of the underlying questions asked by Alice Thompson’s deliciously creepy tale that is almost an homage to surreal horror stories such as Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and John Fowles’s The Magus.

Burnt Island

by Alice Thompson

Salt Publishing, 224pp, £8.99

Indeed, the answers to these questions may well be found in the very act of making references at all: books, it seems, are inspired by other books.

And in her own tale of the murky, dark sources for inspiration, this act of referencing is also one that plagues her main protagonist, Max Long. Max is the author of seven novels, but the recipient of only a single newspaper review in all that time and effort. He has arrived on Burnt Island to work on his next novel, at the gift of a fellowship which pays board and lodgings as long as the writer can figure the island in his or her next work. His accommodation, though, in a sparsely furnished bothy without electricity, quickly has him searching out other prospects, until he is invited to stay in the luxurious home of bestselling author, the reclusive James Fairfax.

Fairfax is Max’s antithesis in every way: a worldwide critical and commercial success with his very first book, he represents everything Max has aspired to, worked for and, ultimately, failed at. Max’s work has even been to the detriment of his personal life; after years of feeling ignored, his wife, Dot, has left him, and his teenage son, Luke, is almost a stranger. Fairfax, though, has had his own losses: his wife, Natalie, disappeared a year before his book came out, and she has never been seen since. Instead, he lives alone with his beautiful daughter Rose, and her little sister, the mute Esther.

There is another disappearance, though, that should concern Max more, and if he was a better reader of the horror story genre, the kind of book he now wants to write, confident it will earn him the money and fame he craves, he would instantly have noted that the previous recipient of the island fellowship, Daniel Levy, also disappeared, presumed drowned, and on the same day that Natalie vanished. But Max cannot tear himself away, either from the enigmatic Fairfax or the sensual Rose, with whom he soon begins an affair.

But literary inspiration is lacking, and as he struggles to put pen to paper, Max soon finds his mind is otherwise occupied, playing an endless series of frightening tricks on him: he repeatedly sees dark figures darting in and out of the garden; the local doctor takes on a monstrous appearance in one meeting; his agent, the self-satisfied “Meerkat” visits Fairfax to ask why his book is also not coming along as quickly as he would like it to, and when Max follows him, he darts up a side-street with a young man whom he appears to attack with a vampiric bite on the neck. Secret doors in Fairfax’s house reveal a sado-masochistic room, full of contraptions and figures lying naked on beds. Is Max going mad?

Fairfax, it seems, has kept a copy of Daniel Levy’s manuscript, written while he lived on the island, and which is an exact replica of Fairfax’s own bestseller. What exactly has Max stumbled upon? A great literary hoax? Perhaps all books are simply replicas of others, forever derivative and unoriginal. And perhaps we human beings are simply copies, too: Max sees doppelgangers of himself and his family, and what is happening to him seems to be a repeat of what happened to Daniel who, the island doctor tells him, also appeared to see things and go out of his mind. Are we condemned simply to recycle ourselves and our words?

Thompson’s novel explores all of these issues as she racks up the tension, while tracing the destruction of a mind. How much of a Faustian pact is Max willing to make for literary greatness? Is he willing to trade his soul? His family? Her prose style tackles these questions in spare and simple language, devoid of drama and, it would seem, ambiguity, and in that sense, she avoids echoing the richness of both Angela Carter and John Fowles, even as she appears to be paying her tribute to both of them. It’s a wise decision, as this prose style also matches better the sparse landscape of the island itself. This is a simple yet clever tale, gently satirising literary ambition as it explores the darker sources of inspiration, and told with all the supernatural horror of the best Hammer stories.