Monday, March 28, 2011

Power, Religion and the Human Will in Sam Taylor's "The Island at the End of the World"

"The Island at the End of the World" a novel by Sam Taylor

Pa is a religious nut with three children, all of whom live in the titular island at the end of the world. They are, we are told, the last survivors of a Noah-style flood. They survive by growing their own food, hunting for their meat and living in shelter they’ve built for themselves. But all is not well on this island. As the novel progresses, the children, especially the oldest, Alice, begin to rebel. They begin to ask questions. They begin to assert their will on their theocratic father. And the island, the last vestige of humanity, becomes less a paradise, and more a prison.

The novel features several voices that overlap in time, making for an interesting collage of narratives. One is the voices belongs to Finn, the animal-loving, pure of heart son. His curious mind is a beam of creativity in the midst of total isolation. The other voice is that of Pa, the religious fanatic, Old Testament loving, paranoid control freak. Many times the reader gets to see one event from Finn’s point of view, then have that event enlightened with Pa’s point of view. In the second half, Finn’s narration is swapped for Alice’s, the teenage daughter, adding further complexity and richness to the story.

The father writes beautifully and reflectively in a unique voice. He used to be a young hot shot in New York trying to “burn a new future for myself in the wonderful world of money.” He has become religious after the world ended and starts to write in a kind of Old Testament prose, though, honestly, it is prettier than the Old Testament itself: “the sun became black and the moon became as blood, and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.”

Pa tries to convince himself that his faith is based on what he has seen: the end of the world. “Often, I find, it is better to forget what you KNOW, and to believe only what you SEE with your own two eyes.” But like many people who turn to religion for honorable purposes, Pa’s faith takes a turn for the worse. He becomes power hungry and disguises his brainwashing of his three children as being their protector. He says over and over again that he loves them and that he is protecting them from the “poison” and the “contamination” of the world. But the only thing he’s protecting them from is knowledge of the world as it was before the flood, Babylon as he calls it. Just like the self-righteous god in the garden of Eden, Pa wants to control his subjects’ actions, but also their minds. He keeps them from the Knowing Tree, a mysterious giant redwood he forbids his children from ever seeing. He also hides a cabin in the woods filled with books like Robinson Crusoe and Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” and “White Noise.” (Great homage, by the way.)

Pa wants his children to wander around the island in ignorance forever. And when his daughter Alice insists she has a right to look at the Knowing Tree, he beats her. It becomes clear early on in the book, that Pa is no benevolent god. He’s as jealous and temperamental as the god of the Old Testament. He may have loved his children once, but he values obedience more than anything else. Pa seeks absolute power. And his love for power leaves no room for any other love.

Finn struggles with his father’s faith. He sees the inconsistencies. He wants to believe god doesn’t exist, “cus God made people an then He kills em cus He asks Abraham to sakry fice his own sun cus Hes cruel and… too power full.” If you can get past the phonetic prose, Finn makes a good point. I thought this same thing when I was around his age, which I think is eight or ten. When children are told god is good and all powerful, they tend to believe it. But then Finn reads the Bible and comes across the story of Abraham. Here’s a father that’s willing to kill his son for no other reason than because some god tells him to. Finn rightly views this as an immoral act, even though it comes from The Book that is supposed to contain all morality. But Finn’s morality is not of god or religion, it is of heart. Deep down, Finn fears his father might be an Abraham as well. His father might be sacrificing his family on some bizarre altar (the island) to a god that may not even exist.

Then Will comes to the island, names as such because he brings an element of personal will into an island of repression and isolation. He’s a young man on a mission, whose true purpose is revealed at the end in a powerful turn of events. Pa is paranoid and terrified. Another grown man on the island means a threat to his crazy theocratic control over the island. Will and Alice get close. After all, Will is the first man she’s ever really seen who is not her father. This gets Pa burning with anger and hatred quickly. From this point on, the reader knows that it’s only a matter of time before something explodes between Will and Pa.

"Fear,” the father writes in his journal, “makes a person more malleable.” But only to a point. Will represents the break in Pa’s world of fear. The power of the human will can conquer all the burdens imposed upon it.

Pa begins to deteriorate more and more as the world he has created for his children crumbles around him. He knows he will lose Alice. He knows she will follow Will (and her own personal will, or desire) and flee the island. Will and Alice discover Pa’s journal, which he started writing back before the flood. The journal is interesting in that it adds another voice, another narration. And it reveals an ending that, while shocking, makes total sense within the world of the story. By the second half of the book, the reader is suspicious of Pa and prepared for the ending. And Taylor delivers wonderfully. I won’t give it away, because it’s so well done.

That said, the book can be hard to get through at times. It’s filled with Old Testament styled addresses to god, such as “Let mine eyes run down with tears and let them not cease…” And both Alice and Pa speak in streams of consciousness, throwing out the laws of grammar and any form of sentence structure. While this makes sense in the overall world of the novel, it comes across as gimmicky and childish in points. But underneath its flaws is a great story about control, power and the struggle of the human will to overcome blind faith and lies.

For more information on the book click here.

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