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Five On A Desert Island!
on 16 May 2010
A REVIEW OF 'THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND' BY JULES VERNE
'The Mysterious Island' (1874) is one of the lesser-known works of Jules Verne, who today tends to be remembered for his three masterpieces, 'Journey To The Centre Of The Earth', '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea' and 'Around The World In 80 Days'. However, the relative obscurity of 'The Mysterious Island' must not be used to assume that this is somehow a less enjoyable or less worthy novel from the master of Extraordinary Voyages (the collective name given to Verne's writings). Indeed, the many merits of the book are confirmed by the fact that Hollywood saw fit to commit numerous versions to film, perhaps the most famous being made in 1961. Another factor in the novel's favour is that it is technically the sequel to '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea' and can be read as a companion piece to the more famous prequel.
The plot of 'The Mysterious Island' centres around a balloon-wreck (!), which leaves 5 escapees from The American Civil War on a seemingly-deserted Pacific island which they choose to name Lincoln Island. Over the course of the numerous years in which they inhabit the land mass, they create their own civilisation and stamp their mark upon a landscape previously untouched by man, with the growing hope that Lincoln Island will eventually form part of the American Union. However, as they endeavour to initially survive and then flourish in their new environment, the fortunes of the men appear to be being manipulated by a mysteriously beneficent and possibly supernatural force.
The story itself draws upon a range of other novels which deal with the theme of desert islands and survival. Readers familiar with 'Treasure Island', 'Swiss Family Robinson', 'The Coral Island' and 'Robinson Crusoe' will find many of the set pieces and circumstances in Verne's work familiar. However, it is the ingenuity of the characters and the author's spinning of the yarn which prevent 'The Mysterious Island' from being merely a facsimile of other writers' works. The initial balloon-wreck, and the later action set-pieces (provided both by man and Mother Nature) are delivered with real gusto and energy and continue to pack a thrill, which must have resounded even more marvellously with readers in the days before cinema. In his vivid descriptions of the scenery of Lincoln Island and the monumental events which take place on its shores and within, Verne creates a genuine sense of the reader being there and appreciating the experience.
Nevertheless, certain elements of 'The Mysterious Island' do not stand up to too much scrutiny. The fact that the 5 principal characters (whose professions include journalism, sailing and engineering) manage to co-exist on an island in such deprived circumstances without one cross word is hard to credit. Indeed, there is something almost Enid Blyton-esque in their camaraderie, a comparison made stronger by the inclusion of a pet dog and later, orang-utan to the team! Likewise, the afore-mention ingenuity of the men, which is principally the result of engineer, Cyrus Harding's, skills sees them manufacture not only a sea-faring boat, clothes, and a diverse farm, but also electricity, hydraulic saws and nitro-glycerine!!! At times it feels like the Blue Peter team on overdrive.
However, laying aside credibility at key stages of the book, there is no denying that 'The Mysterious Island' is a very entertaining read. Whereas in Verne's lesser works, the narrative retains a pedestrian pace, here the story builds to a fitting finale, which not only explains the 'supernatural' happenings, but also saves the best action set-pieces to the end.
It should be noted that those expecting '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea II' will be disappointed by 'The Mysterious Island', because Verne fails to rehash the adventures of Captain Nemo and instead offers a very different novel, which instead sheds new light on its predecessor. In short, 'The Mysterious Island' is vintage Verne and deserves (like its principal characters) to break free from its mysteriously relative obscurity and reclaim its rightful place in the world of classic novels.
Barty's Score: 8/10
PS. If you enjoyed this review, have a skim through all of my reviews to find other authors whose books I have enjoyed. For example, if 'The Mysterious Island' won you over, why not try 'The Island Of Terror' by Sapper or 'The Land That Time Forgot' by Edgar Rice Burroughs?