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Burnt Island [Paperback]

Alice Thompson
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
RRP: 8.99
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Book Description

15 May 2013
For disillusioned author Max Long, the offer of a writing-fellowship on the mysterious-sounding ‘Burnt Island’ is a godsend. Max is determined that, inspired by his tenure on this windswept outpost, he will produce every writer’s dream — the bestseller. And this time, he plans to subvert his usual genre and write a horror story.
But upon arrival, Max’s fantasies of hermetic island life are overturned when he encounters a potential rival living in close proximity – the famously reclusive James Fairfax, author of the internationally-lauded novel, Lifeblood.

Fairfax’s critical and financial success with Lifeblood, coupled with his refusal to court the limelight, has long been the talk of the literary circles. However, as the lives of the two men become intertwined, Max cannot marry the myth of the publicity-shy Fairfax with the apparently urbane and confident reality. He begins to suspect that Fairfax is not the true author of his exceptional debut. Moreover, Max cannot escape the disturbing knowledge that Fairfax’s wife has disappeared.
Recently-divorced and struggling to keep a grip on his fragile mental state, the vulnerable Max finds himself sliding into Fairfax’s world. And he starts to witness alarming visions that take the form of the horror he is attempting to write. Who or what is the sinister, darting figure who appears between the trees of Fairfax’s garden at night? Who is the tiny, forlorn little girl who seems to need help? And what has happened to Fairfax’s missing wife?
With an unnerving plotline in which we encounter doppelgängers, ghostly forms and machines masquerading as humans, Burnt Island is a masterwork of subtle terror. At times evoking The Wicker Man in its growing sense of paranoia and undercurrent of eroticism, Thompson’s evocative, compellingly-written story takes a grip on the reader as inexorable as that of Burnt Island on Max Long. An ironic satire on literary ambition, Thompson’s sixth novel soon draws the reader into something much darker.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Salt Publishing (15 May 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1907773487
  • ISBN-13: 978-1907773488
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 263,353 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


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…. 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. (Lesley McDowell The Scotsman)

Thompson’s gripping narrative invites the reader to solve the mystery of Burnt Island and the true purpose of Max Long’s fellowship. A dark, compelling novel with strong themes of paranoia and strange eroticism throughout. (Lizzie Greenhalgh The Lady)

Burnt Island is steeped in self-awareness, as a book about the process and effect of writing might be. It seems connected by literary electricity to other tales of isolation: The Shining, Pincher Martin, The Sea, The Sea. It might resist "character development", but Max does learn that, however bad things can get for him, there is always someone who has had it worse: usually another writer. (John Self The Guardian)

At the end Thompson seems to be hinting that writing is a parasitic occupation, a form of vampirism even, writers taking the events of others’ lives and using them as raw material, and in the relationship between Fairfax and Long that is taken to an extreme. Exquisitely written, with a real feel for the wide open spaces and the indifference of nature, but at the same time showing how these things are mirrored in the human heart, this is a miniature gem of a book, one that tells us something of the gothic while remaining thoroughly modern in the telling, with a meta-fictional streak that places the practice of writing itself under the microscope. (Peter Tennant Black Static Magazine)

Fractured and lucid as a dream. Creepy and brilliant. (Ian Rankin)


Angela Carter crossed with the Scottish diffidence of Muriel Spark. (Ali Smith — on Justine)

A high-wire act of a novel. Try to resist it and you can’t. (Fay Weldon — on Pandora’s Box)

Expertly combining compelling storytelling with a cleverly constructed, elegant and metaphor-ridden style. (Camilla Pia — on The Falconer)

The Existential Detective is unsettling, unsettlingly erotic, and somehow sadly beautiful. Thompson is fast becoming one of the most original and formidable writers in the English language today. (Sunday Herald — on The Existential Detective)

Haunting, strange, Kafkaesque, poetic mystery. (Ian Rankin — on The Existential Detective)

A gothic music video of a novel that whirls with weirdness… madly energetic … genuinely scary. (Stephen King — on Pharos)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Surrealist Tale 3 Jun 2013
Max Long, separated from his wife and teenage son, is the author of seven novels, none of which have sold well. Struggling to write his next book, Max responds to an advert in 'The Times' offering a fellowship for a writer on a remote island, lasting for a period of three months, inclusive of board, lodgings and expenses. Max is surprised when his application is successful, and he soon finds himself heading out to a huge, black rock in the middle of the Atlantic called Burnt Island.

There, on the island, Max encounters James Fairfax, a reclusive author who has achieved great success with his debut bestselling novel, and before long Max has moved into James's huge modernist house, built almost entirely of glass, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. At James's home, Max meets his host's beautiful adult daughter, Rose, who is also a writer (of erotic novels Max is informed) and James's younger daughter, Esther, who has been mute since the sudden disappearance of her and Rose's mother, Natalie, over a year earlier.

Whilst Max is staying with the Fairfaxes he learns that another author, Daniel Levy, who was staying at the Fairfax family home, also disappeared rather suddenly, but not a trace of either Daniel or Natalie has since been found. Rummaging through some drawers in James's home one day, Max finds a manuscript written by Daniel but, on closer inspection, he is amazed to discover that this manuscript is virtually identical to the novel supposedly written by James. What, Max asks himself, does this mean? Did James steal Daniel's work? And what did actually happen to Daniel?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Resplendent lyricism 28 Sep 2013
This is a novel of ideas about consciousness, about love, ambition and envy, and about the sacrifices that artists make.

Before the story begins, we are given a gobbet of Plato's Republic and a dialogue of our protagonist in psychotherapy. The themes are blatant: reality, delusion, madness and death.

The story involves the protagonist, Max, a minor novelist, being enticed to a magic island with the promise of writing a bestseller.

There is a Prospero character, and a vortex of enigmas and surrealist visions on the island. Its inhabitants are figments, or doppelgangers, or alter egos, or caricatures, of Max and his family and professional contacts.

Burnt Island engages the post-modern idiom of the self-reflexive novel, the work of art that addresses the creative process resulting in its own existence. It asks whether anything can be said to be real before it has been written about. It warns its own author of being "a plagiarist of reality".

Max rails against symbolism, but the book teems with symbols. These two tropes - symbolism and self-reflexivity - come together in the names of Rose, the fantasy lover, and Dot, the estranged wife. Dot. Full stop: the end of a sentence.

Thematically, but not stylistically, Burnt Island for me resembles the fiction of Virginia Woolf, D.M. Thomas and J.G. Ballard. It also brings to mind The Affirmation by Christopher Priest, a past winner, like Alice Thompson, of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Stylistically, Alice Thompson is in a class of her own. Her prose style is distinguished by control, clarity and a resplendent lyricism. Time and again, I would stay on a page for minutes on end, basking in the beauty of her sentence construction.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Writer Beware... 4 Aug 2013
By Julia
There is something about the insularity and independence of islands that makes them both attractive and alarming. To be obliged to set out to sea in order to reach them and knowing that, once there, you can be marooned, appeals to the spirit of adventure in many of us.

Max is a writer who, despite having written seven published novels, has failed to achieve the acclaim that he seeks. When a mystery benefactor grants him the chance to spend three months on Burnt Island, with no obligations other than to write, he is sure that he will finally find the inspiration to produce a best-seller.

He sets sail for the island in a storm, during which journey the sea steals his suitcase, leaving him to arrive almost ship-wrecked and helpless on the island. From this Kafkaesque beginning his grasp on reality begins to loosen. Or does it?

Is Max suffering from psychotic episodes?
Is someone messing with his head?
Or is Burnt Island playing tricks on him?

I admit that I only started to read this book because I received a free copy from the publishers, and because I'd heard so much about it from social networking sites. I am really glad that I did.

Unusually for me, I consumed it in one sitting and when I reached the final page I felt disturbed, disorientated and as if my eyes were bleeding. It's been a breathtakingly brutal but brilliant read.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Does writerly seclusion ever end well? 27 July 2013
By Mrs Em.
Format:Kindle Edition
This is the first of Thompson's novels that I've read, and I'll definitely be looking for more. She has a compelling style. I can't quite to think who to compare her to, which is always a bonus as it's so rare to find a unique voice.

From the moment Max sets out for the island in the worst storm the ferryman has ever seen, you know he's in for nothing but trouble. All I could think of here was my ancient copy of Wuthering Heights, and how whenever Bronte conjures up a storm the shit gets ready to hit the fan. As readers we're programmed to think "storm = bad things about to happen", and Thompson doesn't disappoint. Even more prophetic though was the moment Max's luggage slid into the sea, I thought that was beautifully done. You're on your own now Max. Wouldn't want to be you.

Burnt Island is a dark novel. It's an unsettling read, in fact it's outright disturbing in places and is going to mess with your head long after you've closed it for the night. I liked Thompson's early shout out to The Shining, as the two have an awful lot in common. Does writerly seclusion ever end well?

"It was as if the strange events on the island were taking on the form of the horror he was trying to write."

I didn't quite feel the urge to put this one in the freezer but I wasn't too far off.

The sense of menace that runs through the entirety of the novel is beautifully imagined and expertly written. It never leaves the page. This is the kind of book that will give you ulcers, it's a stressful read but it's so bloody compelling you cannot put it down for the life of you. It's immersive, completely immersive.

I have a feeling this is going to be something of a Marmite read. I enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it to fellow writers of any level.
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