I loved this book, and I’m terrified that I have it totally wrong. So if you disagree, or are in fact Briohny Doyle and would like to correct me, by all means do so!
Ok, so the protagonist is Max, a fit-for-his-middle-age family man who makes “immersive” disaster films. In the future setting, this means that it is a type of augmented reality cinema designed to stimulate sensory and emotional responses, and the disaster content is supposed to be cathartic. He’s had a long and successful career but has recently been accused of becoming formulaic and exploitative by a young and environmentally/ socially active competitor. The entire country is on edge, and a 24-hour news cycle monitors the minute degrees by which Pitcairn Island is slowly sinking.
There are some facets of the world that I am a little confused by. The post-energy crisis Australia has its people police each other’s energy use, and makes being conservative with use a marketable exercise through an animated panda. Max’s young daughter is totally caught up in the trend and the pursuit of panda points, and chastises him to use the stairs instead of the lift, and limit his showers to within a few minutes… but he has a dressing gown warming hutch and every house has interactive screens which take up entire walls. He keeps an apartment for work which is driving distance from his house. My assumption is that this is Doyle’s comment on the classism that almost always accompanies this sort of energy debate. It’s all very well and good for Max’s family to smugly talk about what they are going without, while conveniently ignoring the privileges they have kept, still looking down their noses at the lower classes that don’t have the privilege of giving up their cars or living in expensive environmentally-sustainable and “disaster-proof” housing in gated communities high above sea level.
So where this book got really interesting for me wasn’t anything to do with Pitcairn Island and the question of global warming causing an environmental collapse or Max’s movie career… it was with Tom, Max’s comatose brother. It is set up as a sub-plot but I think that it’s a trick, and what happened to Tom and Max is actually what the story is about. Bear with me.
Max’s wife pressures Max into consenting to a revolutionary new procedure developed by a young lady neurologist called Gabrielle. The idea is to link Max to Tom through a shared subconscious, where they can communicate through images, and try to figure out if Tom can tell them what happened to him to put him in a coma. Max has short term memory loss, some kind of amnesia, which makes him totally dependent on a cloud based memory archiving system. He was the last person with Tom before his brother fell into the coma, but is unable to remember what he went to meet him for that fateful day.
When I saw the romantic subplot chapter heading which appears at this point, I had a twinge of dread because it most likely meant affair. I spent a very long time hoping that it in fact meant that he would reconnect with his wife Ellen, and that with the amnesia it would effectively be like pursuing a new relationship, but no, Max starts sleeping with Gabrielle and it was only at the end why I realised that it wasn’t just the same old sleeping-with-the-doctor cliche. It’s something which, I think, is far more sinister.
Here be spoilers.
I think Tom got mixed up in the same sleeper cult which Gabrielle describes her mother being a part of and raising her in. I think there was a Jonestown type situation which Max tried to extract Tom from but ended up being caught. There is a reference to three empty bunks when the police find the bodies of the cult members- I’d bet good money that those bunks belonged to Tom, Max and Gabrielle. When they escaped, the chemical cocktail the cult administered had different effects on them based on their doses. Tom got a special kind of epilepsy that makes you fall into a coma when you are too sensorily stimulated, but Max lost the ability to form new memories. Gabrielle remembered, and spent the interim years obsessed with perfecting the sleeper cocktail and finding a way to communicate with those asleep. She found Tom and realised that through Max she had a perfect opportunity to finish what the cult started. There is a seemingly extraneous line where Gabrielle thinks about how she had thought Max was making up his memory loss but she has come to realise it is genuine- you’re supposed to think its because she doesn’t know him very well, but I think its actually because she knows him better than anyone realises. When Ellen pressured Max into the procedure she was thinking that being able to communicate with Tom would help bring him closure about what happened and perhaps cure his memory problems. When she abruptly forces Tom to abandon the experiment, the insinuation is that it is because she has figured out the affair, but what if it is actually because she dug deeper and discovered Gabrielle’s connection to the same cult that Tom was involved in?
When Gabrielle slips Max the same drug cocktail that the sleeper cult uses, to bring Max to a greater degree of receptivity with Tom, she inadvertently (?) replicates the trauma from their escape, and triggers a kind of existential crisis in Max whereby instead of compulsively recording his every moment and thought he begins to systematically go through the archives and delete all of his memories.
It is about this time that Pitcairn Island abruptly sinks, despite the fact that it should have taken years, decades, more. Max’s best friend and young competitor-now-protege were on the Island filming Max’s magnum opus, the immersive disaster film of the island sinking, when it went down and have now died. The evening of the film’s premiere is so emotionally and sensorily overwhelming that the audience faint, vomit, have total nervous breakdowns. Max, fresh from Gabrielle’s drug induced “therapy” falls into a coma. The end.
OR what if it isn’t? What if Max in fact fell into the coma way before that, when Gabrielle drugged him and he was fitting all over the place and she was holding his body swearing that if he survived she wouldn’t drug him again. What if the (supposedly main) plot about Pitcairn Island sinking and the freak hurricane where Gabrielle, Tom, the entire facility disappears, was actually Max dreaming and sorting through his trauma and at the end he finally. Wakes. Up.
At one point in the book, when you’re supposed to be thinking she’s onto the affair, Ellie makes an innocuous comment to Gabrielle about how she’s taken an interest in conspiracy theories lately, which Gabrielle has a very stong reaction to. Again, you’re supposed to think it’s because of the affair, but what if it’s actually Gabrielle realising that she’s running out of time to finish her experiment? There’s also an innocent detail at the very beginning about how all of Max’s female staffers look exactly the same, brunettes with such similar facial features that he can never tell them apart. At the time it sounds like a gross middle aged director thing to do, very mad men, but it just so happens that all of those women look like exactly one woman. A woman Max has forgotten but is lodged in his subconscious. Gabrielle. Which is why I can’t come down on the affair too hard, there’s a lot more going on under the surface than just a kind of lonely guy fixating on a pretty doctor. She means something to him but he can’t figure out why or what.
By the end of this book I felt like it was a good book and that I didn’t really understand the subplot, and then I kept thinking about it, and getting more and more excited and paranoid, and messaging friends with my ever more insane-sounding theories, until finally the next morning I felt like I’d reached a state of zen-like acceptance and euphoria.
The Island Will Sink gets 3.5 stars from me. It would have walked into a 4 star rating for me if Ellie had been a more active character. I feel like even when she was trying to save Max she was always on the periphery, almost pushed entirely out of frame. In some ways she is the hero of the book and yet the only time you see her is in the corner of the room, saying some guarded statement, or in the kitchen saying Tv-mum stuff. The other characters are always leaving her behind. I’ve managed to build up such an exit-stage-left narrative of what Ellie was doing when everyone was busy that she has in fact become my favourite character, but honestly 90% of that is self-invented.
Please go read this book, if you haven’t. If you have, comment! Am I totally off base, or have I blown your mind?