Sam Taylor's Republic of Trees focused on a paradise, run by children, for children. It didn't work. In The Island at the End of the World, he takes on the theme of a paradise run by a father for the benefit of his three children, Alice, Finn and Daisy. This is a paradise with three books - the Complete Works of Shakespeare, the Bible, and Grimms' Fairytales. The paradise is set on an island in the middle of an ocean, and the family arrived on the island in an ark during a great flood. They believe themselves to be the last remaining survivors of the human race.
In the opening half of the book, Pa and Finn - who is probably about ten and has no antediluvian memories - alternate in their narration. Pa has a bit of a God complex - and a very Old Testament God complex at that - seeking to control and avenge for the good of preserving the paradise in which he is raising his children. Finn, meanwhile, trusts his father completely and submits to the authority almost entirely.
As a stranger appears on the island, the paradise is threatened. Pa has to decide what he is and is not prepared to do for the greater good of preserving the paradise. This leads on into the second half of the book, in which the narration is shared between Pa and Alice, his older, thirteen year old daughter. Unlike Finn, Alice does have some memories of the old world - Babylon as Pa describes it - and has a little more curiosity than her brother. She also seems to have been far more affected by the loss of their mother han her two siblings.
So begins a strange and stylized story of deception and protection; of adolescence and awakening. The voices - all stylized - are utterly compelling. Pa is a lay preacher of a tyrant; Finn tells the story in a phonetic, uneducated style reminiscent of the central, cargo-cult section of David Mitchel's Cloud Atlas, and Alice is full of Shakespearean ideals of love and loss. But at the heart is a perverted, dystopian series of relationships for which the children's limited education and vocabulary is not quite sufficient - and for which Pa's fractured state of mind is similarly inadequate. There is a sense of menace and jeopardy that runs through every slightest action. The reader has no idea what might happen next because there is no law beyond that in Pa's mind at any given moment.
The novel is beautifully crafted - every bit the equal of the woodcut cover - and causes pause for profound questions. Most profound of all, perhaps, is just what price is worth paying for life in paradise. And when does the price become such that it is no longer paradise. The novel's simple imagery is deeply haunting and, stylized though it may be, offers some striking parallels to recent cases of children being raised in isolation in Austrian dungeons. The impenetrable, scary forests; the sunflower fields; the ark; the high redwoods reaching up into the infinite canopy, the ocean... Very, very visual. And add to this all the biblical metaphor, along with all sorts of nods to Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm...
OK, some reviewers have pointed out that the novel does include some non-standard spelling; use of profane words; and considers the sexuality of a teenage girl. If these ideas offend or repel you, perhaps this isn't the novel for you. And there has been some suggestion that this might not be apropriate for children. Indeed it isn't - this is a book about children, not for children. Again, if this is a concept that seems confusing, perhaps this isn't the book for you. But if you have an open mind and a spark of intelligence, this shining novel may well be one of your reading highlights of 2009.