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The Complete Review: "An unsettling castaway story."

Date: Oct 11 2012

THE ISLAND OF LAST TRUTH is the story of a man surviving being a castaway. It is introduced by a Phoebe Westore, who met that man, Mathew Prendel, almost a decade after he first left New York on his ill-fated sailing expedition, and who became his lover years after his return to civilization. His deathbed confession, as it were, some seven years after they met and became a couple, is the story of what happened to him, and how he survived, which then makes up the bulk of the novel. This account, however, is not in Prendel's own voice, but rather a more distanced third-person, with only the occasional first-person interjection (and a slightly longer final admission) reminding readers that the tale comes (in)directly from Prendel via Phoebe (herself a professor of English literature and used to dealing with all sorts of texts ...).

Phoebe introduces Prendel in a Preface, setting up the story and presentation. She explains that Prendel was a surgeon and then a professor at Columbia University, and that when he came into some money he arranged to take a year off to go sailing. He disappeared for five years, and by the time she meets him has been back in New York for about four, but has few ties to anyone: he'd lost his family, friends, and the woman he had loved. He appears scarred from his experience;

According to those who had ever spent time with him, he was unrecognizable, not only his physical appearance, but above all his character.

Phoebe, somewhat scarred herself, finds herself drawn to him, and they become a couple -- but for all those years Prendel remains silent on the subject of what he went through, until he is near death.

The story of what happened is a classic castaway yarn, with some decent twists. Sailing off the Atlantic coast of Africa, far from the shipping lanes, Prendel is the only member of his small crew to survive. Certain he will die in these waters, he surprisingly comes across a small island whose existence he was not aware of; even more surprisingly, he finds someone else is already there.

The other castaway, who arrived not much before Prendel, is Nelson Souza, and he immediately imposes some conditions: Prendel is not to stray onto what Souza considers his part of the island, and is not to make any efforts to attract notice that might get them saved. He lays down the law:

It will be me who decides when and how we leave here, is that clear ?

It's clear enough -- Souza has the upper hand -- so Prendel doesn't argue too strenuously, and more or less tries to make the best of the odd situation. The island is small and deserted, but there is enough food and water to survive comfortably. But there's no sense of camaraderie at being in the same boat: Souza keeps to himself and leaves Prendel largely to his own devices.

Prendel is, of course, frustrated, both by the lack of human contact -- it's as if he were alone on the island -- and also by Souza's unwillingness to take any steps towards a possible escape and return to civilization. Souza has his reasons -- several, as Prendel eventually learns -- but a great deal of time passes before there is much change in their circumstances. Souza's calm, philosophical manner as he follows his plan is frustrating to Prendel -- and he doesn't find reassurances such as Souza's that: "Losing your mind is part of the experience", particularly helpful.

Obviously, Prendel eventually makes it off the island -- yet from the first Phoebe suggests some lingering doubts about exactly what happened: in just the second paragraph of her Preface she notes a report from Prendel's dentist about the condition of his teeth which: "didn't prove but did strengthen the hypothesis that expert sailor Prendel had been shipwrecked years before". Even in expressing how firm her belief in Prendel is she sows doubt even before his tale unfolds:

At no time did I doubt the legend. At no time did I think it might be a falsified story, a trivial anecdote embellished to the extreme and that, for example, Prendel could have lost his boat a few meters of the coast of Africa due to a more prosaic collision with a rock or another boat and later on, rumors had made it into a heroic exploit.

There is, of course, a twist, and a big reveal -- for Phoebe, too -- though it doesn't come in Prendel's account itself but rather when the last pieces are put into place. Company sets herself a hard task in balancing plausibility without giving away too much, too early on. As is, the resolution isn't entirely satisfying -- one sees it coming too clearly -- and Company doesn't do quite enough in building to it that it could have some final, neat, nail-in-the-coffin feel to it. Instead, a bit too much remains unexplained or simply too convenient, and there are also quite a few big missed opportunities.

Still, THE ISLAND OF LAST TRUTH is a good, unsettling castaway story, with a decent framing device. The obvious issues it opens itself up to -- of isolation, identity, and veracity, in particular -- aren't taken up and utilized nearly as much as one might hope, and so it remains merely a good read rather than a truly haunting one, but it works well enough as an adventure story with a few added twists.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 October 2012

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