If it hadn't been for its place on the top of a stand in the bookshop, I would have missed it completely. It isn't an imposing book - the front cover is a self-effacing shade of blue, only a tone brighter than grey - so it was the title which caught my eye. The word Remote was picked out in italics and the simple sight of that conjured an image of windswept boulders and breakers beating on an empty shore. The addition of the word Island beneath was almost unnecessary. The book was already in my hands, the bookshop had receded and a new reality had taken over. I stood in a dream, transported to places where seagulls call like lost children over the corpses of drowned sailors, where lighthouse keepers declare themselves king or the inhabitants attempt to save their sinking land with dykes of stones and brushwood. I travelled to scraps of rock so inhospitable that they have only been visited once or perhaps twice in the whole of human history, places where babies die of unnamed illnesses or are sacrificed in bizarre rituals by people who have forgotten or never knew that there is another world beyond the boundaries of the patch of earth they inhabit.
Just the idea of an island is a deeply romantic notion. Judith Shalansky has taken this idea and transformed it into a book which is not just a collection of true and evocative tales, but is also a lovely object. Two pages are dedicated to each subject. On the right is a beautifully drawn map, reminiscent of the time when cartography was an art as much as a set of directions. Facing this is a page of information. We are given the island's geographical location, its population, the other names by which it is known, the country which has laid claim to it, the distance of the island from the mainland and a timeline of important events. Below this, a short section of prose, no more than two or three hundred words in which Shalansky gives the reader a slice of the island's history. Here we can read about the Berlin dentist who moves to an island in the Galapagos with his partner, to be joined three years later by a woman who claims to be an Austrian baroness and her two lovers. Two years later, all but one of the five are dead. Or we can learn of Tromelin, a patch of sand less than a kilometer square, now the abode of four residents, where in 1760, the French boat Utile was wrecked and the 122 survivors, marooned on this dot in the ocean, lit a fire in an attempt to attract the attention of other passing ships. Fifteen years later, Shalansky tells us, the fire was still burning.
It's a wonderful treasure of a book, one in which you can lose yourself as thoroughly as the travelers captured in its pages.