A middling memoir of travels among the world’s far-flung islands.
Clarke (California Fault, 1996, etc.) takes us on a wide-ranging tour of islands that are off most tour-group maps. Some of them (such as the Bay of Fundy’s Campobello Island, where Franklin Roosevelt kept a summer home) are notable for their role in history, while others (such as the embattled and rapidly disappearing coral atolls of the Maldives) are notable for what they reveal about the fragility of islands as ecosystems. But most, it appears, figure in Clarke’s narrative simply because he happened to go there at some time or another, and his descriptions of what he calls “the last real islands” are often little more revealing than those found in standard-issue travel brochures. His pieces follow a standard formula: he travels to a distant island, takes a quick survey of its appearance and flaws, and then finds some offbeat character or another on whom to hang an anecdote or two. For instance, on Chile’s Isla Robinson Crusoe, “a strangely claustrophobic place” where the Scottish sailor (and, by all accounts, nasty punk) Alexander Selkirk was marooned between 1704 and 1709, Clarke homes in on a French curmudgeon who’d spent time in a Viet Minh military prison in the 1950s and now spends his days fishing in solitude, while on Vietnam’ s Phu Quoc island (a wartime vacation spot for Viet Cong and American fighters alike) he hooks up with a fearlessly contemptuous Amerasian anticommunist who “was careful to speak Vietnamese, but he dreamed in English.” Though Clarke is capable of inspired writing—his brief passage on the eerie silences of Jura is superb—he seems a little bored with the whole business of island-hopping, and his account compares poorly to Bill Holm’s Eccentric Islands (p. 1097), which covers some of the same ground with more vigor.
A competent travelogue, but not much more.