Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2017

Archipelago of Souls (2015), by Gregory Day

I am very conscious that I am late to the party with this review: Gregory Day’s fourth novel, Archipelago of Souls, was published in 2015 and has already been widely reviewed – at The Weekend Australian, The Saturday Paper, at the SMH and the Newtown Review.  But having read Book #1 of the Mangowak trilogy The Patron Saint of Eels (2005)  (see my review from six years ago in 2011) I meant to read what I already had: Books #2 and #3 , Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds (2007) and The Grand Hotel (2010) … and of course I got sidetracked by other things.  It was not until Archipelago of Souls was shortlisted for the biennial 2017 Tasmanian Book Prize that I belatedly ordered a copy and discovered just how good it is.

Archipelago of Souls is an apt title: an archipelago is a group of islands that together form a whole.  Like the islands that make up Greece, and the 334 that form the island state of Tasmania.  This novel is set partly on King Island where a lone soul called Wesley Cress arrives in the aftermath of WW2.  An unwilling hero of the partisan resistance on Crete, Wes intends to live the hermit-like existence that he thinks he deserves because of events in his war.  But like the islands of the archipelago, even in the solitariness of his island home at Wait-a-While, Wesley’s soul is not alone.  And as he finds out, he is not the only one to have a troubled past.

An eccentric character called John Lascelles has plans for a Memorial Reading Room on King Island, to be built in homage to the returned soldiers.  While the community is more used to the usual memorial statue on a plinth, Lascelles is convinced that a quiet retreat for soldiers to read and write offers healing for their wounded souls.   When Wesley arrives, this reading room is no more than an idea, and he refuses to have anything to do with it.  But when he realises that he needs to explain his hostile bitterness to Leonie Fermoy, a wild child of the island with her own nightmares, he privately takes up Lascelles’ concept and writes a narrative to exorcise his demons.

The hellish narrative of Wesley’s past in Crete alternates with his recount of the present.  His brother Vern is lost during a botched evacuation as the Germans arrive, and Wesley struggles to come to terms with his own reasons for being left behind.  He also has to choose whether to align with the Cretans dealing in their own way with the invading Germans and Italians, and to work with remnants of British Intelligence that he no longer trusts.  As he makes his way southward in hope of a boat to take him back to his unit, he is up against a pitiless landscape of arid mountains as well as the shock discovery that even in this remote area there are quislings.  The novel is structured so that the reader knows at the outset that he survives the hunger and cold, but it’s how he does it, and the impact on his self-identity that makes this narrative utterly compelling.

Over time, as Wesley’s soul vacillates between healing and self-destruction, he learns that he, Leonie and Lascelles share the scars of motherlessness and that this has made all three averse to the risks of love.  As is appropriate, the novel doesn’t offer a quick or tidy resolution, only a hesitant fusing of a need to belong and a tentative healing through the power of words.  For, given the chance to perhaps at last find out what had happened to his brother, Wesley finds that acceptance might be the most powerful balm of all.  Knowing what happened and why, a compulsion that we see in the media so often among the bereaved when a tragedy has occurred, doesn’t bring the loved one back, and may not bring the comfort that’s hoped for.   Perhaps some deeply felt personal traumas are best kept private:

…even then, with my new sociability, and with all I had got off my chest to Leonie and then to Lascelles, I could not face exposing my story to such a public arena.  Leave me alone, I wanted to cry out, all over again.  Just leave me alone.

It was still a raw nerve that had been touched, an underwater nerve that I’ll never entirely be rid of I’m sure.  And as I went walking out to the jetty on my own that night I remember sighing deeply at the truth that no matter how far out you go, no matter how many miles from the scenes of your distress, even if you settle at the other end of the earth the ghosts that trouble you will always be there.  Like the moon and stars in the sky.  (p. 361)

Highly recommended.

Update 1/1/18 This morning I got round to reading those reviews that I mentioned above.  (Except for the paywalled one at The Oz.)  Annette Marfording’s at The Newtown Review and the anonymous one at The Saturday Paper are IMHO worth reading.

Author: Gregory Day
Title: Archipelago of Souls
Publisher: Picador, (Pan Macmillan) 2015
ISBN: 9781743537190
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond.




Available from Fishpond: Archipelago of Souls


  1. Ooohhh, this sounds great. And I have a copy on my shelves (I think I won a copy from somewhere). I keep looking at it wondering and now I know that it is worth pulling out sooner rather than later. I love your “highly recommended” books.


    • I predict that you will love it! Did you buy it because you’d read Day before and liked his work, or was it just luck?


      • I haven’t heard of him before – I won my copy. I’ve just had a look and I won it from the Griffith Review – they have quite good giveaways.


  2. I’ll be later to the party – I’ve never heard of Gregory Day. Even if I don’t read much contemporary fiction I generally browse the reviews.


    • One of the reviews I read (a long, pompous essay, not really a review at all) said that he wasn’t well-known, and I think that he is a writer who is a bit under the radar. The essay talked about being out of the internationalist stream in Oz Lit (that is IMO, writing generic stuff that could come from anywhere, *yawn* relationship stories in anonymous urban settings) and Day writes very beautifully of his distinctive places… down Warrnambool Way in Victoria’s southwest, and in this one, very definitely on King Island.


      • Yes, I do like my fiction to have a definite attachment to place. I’ll google Day and Warrnambool, it’s an area I used to know very well.


        • I love Warrnambool, Port Fairy, all along that coast, and inland as well.


  3. […] Archipelago of Souls (2015) by Gregory Day (my last book of the year, review is coming,). […]


  4. […] Archipelago of Souls […]


  5. […] 30/11/20 Click on these links for my reviews for Archipelago of Souls (2015) and A Sand Archive […]


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