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Book Review by Jeanatte Rehnstrom - Atlas of Remote Islands By Judith Schalansky (Penguin)

Last update - Wednesday, February 15, 2012, 02:03 By Metro Éireann

This was one of my favourite books of last year, but unfortunately I did not get to review it in time for Christmas. Even so, this makes a fabulous present at any time, for anyone in your life who loves fantastic adventures, especially of the armchair variety.

In the preface, Schalansky tells of her upbringing on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall and the ways in which she travelled to exotic destinations by running her fingers over maps and atlases, imagining lives far from her own.
Islands in particular caught her fancy, for their isolation and perhaps for their links to paradises and new beginnings, as well as for their way of enclosing and forcing issues by their mere limits of space.
The list of authors that have used the same setting for famous books is a long one: Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), HG Wells (The Island of Dr Moreau), William Golding (Lord of the Flies), JM Coetzee (Foe), John Fowles (The Magus), Thomas More (Utopia), Shakespeare (The Tempest) ad infinitum. There is something about islands that seems to bring out the mysterious and at times the macabre.
When Schalansky researched for this book, she not only had the pleasure of going over old maps but also the written records that were linked to each drop of land. What she found at points perfectly fitted the abstract, aesthetically pleasing maps themselves. She tells of desperate stubborn lonely dreamers that were willing to risk their own lives in pursuit of science, perfection, imaginings and love.
Lonely Island, Disappointment Island, Possession Island and Robinson Crusoe Island all seem to tell big stories simply by their names, but we find the same even in the fantastic names given to places on the islands themselves. Explorers experiencing these far flung paradises named and shamed according to first impressions and longings for home.
Schalansky, translated beautifully by Christine Lo, tells the true stories in an attractive poetic yet precise language. We hear of the real Robinson Crusoe and other forgotten castaways, natural phenomena, scientific explorations and lost explorers, each haunting story perfectly complemented by a beautiful map.
This is a wonderful book that keeps giving each time you venture into its wide and vivid world. It encourages life, dreaming and creativity which, I believe, is the best a book ever can accomplish.

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