The desert island has a long and distinguished pedigree in literature. From Shakespeare’s The Tempest through Robinson Crusoe, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Lord of the Flies, secluded atolls have become a mainstay of modern storytelling. And the genre still fascinates us despite the innovations of global mapping and satellite navigation. In recent years desert islands have once again returned to our screens, from Robert Zemekis’s Cast Away to ABC’s Lost. The islands in question have been large and small, wild and tamed, inhabited and desolate. But they’ve always lent themselves easily to allegory and fable.
In many ways Flavia Company’s The Island of Last Truth falls victim to this long history of shipwreck stories. First published in 2011 (under the Catalan title L’illa de l’ultima veritat) it might be the first post-Lost work of desert island fiction, and it carries a formidable amount of baggage. Readers will approach it with an array of expectations. Those who know the genre from Lost will be pleased to find this slight book packed with plot twists and unexpected turns, and while there aren’t any smoke monsters or ghostly apparitions, both islands clearly sit on the same map. Those with a more literary background will find Company’s castaway on familiar turf too. The book asks questions concerning the reliability of its narrators, explores philosophical dilemmas about life and death, and attempts to reveal mankind’s true nature once the confines of civilization have been stripped away.
Last Truth tells the story of Mathew Prendel, a distinguished doctor who finds himself marooned on an island after his boat is attacked by pirates. Our narrator is the woman who becomes his lover after his return to the mainland, recounting the doctor’s ‘true’ story as told to her on his death bed. We sense that Prendel hasn’t told her everything. His friends died in the attack, but he managed to injure one of the pirate crew in the scuffle. When he wakes on a deserted beach he’s confused to find that his savior is the man he shot, Nelson Souza. He has kept the doctor alive to serve his own agenda, but that agenda is unclear. All Prendel knows is that he must keep to his own half of the island, and he is never to make contact with the stranded pirate, or any passing ships. He isn’t just a castaway – he’s also a prisoner.
Where Last Truth falls short is in its reliance on castaway clichés. Prendel himself “has the feeling of having imitated the books he has read, having acted like a textbook shipwreck”. There’s no escaping the genre’s long history. When Prendel tussles with Souza over ownership of a book, you’ll see shadows of Lord of the Flies. When he starts carving chess pieces, you can’t help imagining him as Tom Hanks in Cast Away. There are even echoes of Lost in the later passages, as he struggles to fit back into society after his rescue. No desert island narrative is ever truly an island; it floats in a sea of other narratives. Company draws heavily from all of them in carving out her own deserted paradise.
In many ways that explains the brevity of Last Truth, which might more accurately be called a novella than a novel. The author tries to skip over some of the clichés, cutting in and out of Prendel’s desolate existence on the island as she allows the plot to dictate the pace. Sometimes six months or more pass between chapters. As Prendel says, “The days are all the same. One after another like links in an absurd, rusty chain that leads nowhere.” Most shipwreck narratives dwell upon this atmosphere of despair and ennui, but Last Truth moves swiftly along to its surprising conclusion.
It’s this slightness that proves to be its undoing. Company clearly wants to ask deeper philosophical questions of her reader, but her vessel is constructed for pace rather than meditation. In the end the deeper issues – human mortality, the unreliability of the narratives – are swept away by the plot twists. Many of the castaway clichés are avoided, but all we’re left with in their place is a lightning-quick page-turner. The Island of Last Truth would make a great beach book, a fast – but intelligent – thriller to keep you entertained between margaritas. Those with time to burn on a desert island, however, may want to opt for something more substantial.