Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2022

The Islands, by Emily Brugman

Shortlisted for the 2020 Vogel Award, Emily Brugman’s novel The Islands is a striking debut.  It’s the absorbing story of a Finnish migrant family who settle on Little Rat Island, off the Western Australian coast in the Abrolhos Islands. Today this cluster of 122 islands 60km from Geraldton is home to WA’s lucrative western rock lobster fishing industry and a tourist destination famed for its exquisite coral reefs, unique wildlife, and intriguing shipwreck history. But in the mid-1950s when the novel begins, life was rugged, precarious and lonely.

The story starts with Onni Saari’s sombre realisation that his brother Nalle has been lost at sea.  Nalle was the adventurous, ambitious one, a somewhat reckless man willing to take a chance in pursuit of a fortune.  While Onni was labouring in the mines at Northampton on the mainland, Nalle had set up a rudimentary hut on Little Rat Island and become part of the small community of Finnish migrants setting lobster pots during the season, with sojourns on the mainland for the rest of the year.

Twenty-one corrugated-iron camps now lined the island’s eastern flank, from which a series of topsy-turvy jetties extended like fractured finger bones.  It resembled a small, ramshackle village.  During the fishing season, for almost six months every year, it became a small, bustling community, way out here on the verge of the Indian Ocean.  For the other half of the year, when most of the fishermen and their families moved back to the mainland, it was a floating ghost town.  There were only a few solitary types, like Latvian Igor, who remained on the island year round. (p.15)

Onni arrives in time to join the search for Nalle, but it’s called off after two days.  These men are pragmatic…

On the third morning, Onni waited again at Sulo’s boat.  He noted the slow habitual movements of the island folk.  He saw fishermen sculling out to their moorings.  Cray boats being loaded with gear.  The distant sound of motors grumbling to life, a skipper calling to his deckhand.  Onni understood that the fishermen were returning to their work.  As he waited by Sulo’s boat, he felt like a forgotten child.

Some time passed before Sulo turned up, his hands in his pockets, an apologetic look on his corrugated face.

The search was over.

And as the sun moved over the sky, and Onni allowed himself to calculate the days since Nalle had gone missing, he understood that all this searching business, those long stretches adrift on the boat, were likely for his sake more than Nalle’s. (p.10-11)

In homage to his brother’s memory, Onni decides to take up Nalle’s lease, bringing his wife Alva with him.  Although the story moves through three generations of this family, it is the characterisation of these two, Onni and Alva which is the core of the novel.  Though the lifestyle is harsh, both are entranced by the beauty of the landscape, and they feel more at home among the Finnish community than they do on the mainland.  With the island community they share stories, song and superstitions, and — never confident in English as their bilingual daughter Hilda is — they feel comfortable retaining some of their traditions.  While the men are generally taciturn, hardened by their solitary work, the harsh weather and the vodka they drink daily, the women enjoy communal activities such as saunas and shared celebrations with traditional Finnish food.  They support each other in the hardships of birth and death, but the transient lifestyle makes it hard to belong anywhere, and once children reach school age, there are other compromises that must be made.

Alva was willing herself to accept that she and Hilda would be spending much more time in Geraldton from now on.  With Hilda starting school, they would only be going to the islands during the holidays.  Perhaps it would do them good in the long run, she ventured.  Within herself, she felt unmoored, floating somewhere between Finland and Australia, somewhere between the islands and the mainland.  She didn’t want that for Hilda.  Hilda needed a more solid foundation.  It was such a transient life you lived out there, always unpacking and packing up again, closing up the camp until the next season.  In recent months, Alva had made an extra effort to make their Bluff Point house feel more like their proper, permanent home.  She had even organised for the Riihimäen glassware, gifted to her by Onni’s family on their wedding day, to be shipped over. (p.64)

A sombre sense of loss pervades the novel.  It is not just the loss of Onni’s brother and the hope that he represented, there is also the loss of belonging, which occurs twice over when the family moves east because of the economic downturn in 1975.  There is also a loss of status.  They were farmers in Finland, and not wealthy, but the lack of English provokes some disdain by disapproving mainland neighbours.  As migrants from a little-known cultural group they lack the supports larger migrant communities could sustain, and they retreat to Finnish to express the unsayable mysteries of life from the epic poem Kalevala. 

The Forging of the Sampo, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1893

Poetry preceding the novel explains the distinctive cover art. Among other snatches of poetry, song and proverbs in Finnish, Brugman references the characters’ yearning for the Sampo, a mill which in Finnish folklore brings riches forged by the god Ilmarinen from white swan feathers, the milk of greatest virtue, a grain of barley, and lambswool.  The colours, blue and white, reference the flag of Finland, and the addition of symbols in red and yellow reference the colours in the Finnish coat of arms.  It’s a thoughtful piece of design by graphic designer Alissa Dinallo.  The internal design by Simon Paterson, Bookhouse, features Finnish-inspired artwork prefacing each chapter.  (There is also a map.)

In the author’s note, Brugman acknowledges the novel-in-stories form inspired by Thea Astley’s Drylands and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. These stories include flashbacks to the Finnish origins of Alva and Onni and their search for security and prosperity after the 1939-1940 Winter War with the USSR.  The novel traces Hilda’s break away from the behaviours expected of her, and introduces her daughter, Alva’s granddaughter.  It’s a quiet novel, with lyrical evocations of both beauty and danger, but there is also restraint, as, for example, in how Nalle’s likely fate is conveyed.

It will be interesting to see what Emily Brugman writes next!

Image credit: By Akseli Gallen-Kallela – 1. Unknown source2. The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 476496, Public Domain,  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=152748

Author: Emily Brugman
Title: The Islands
Cover art by Alissa Dinallo
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781760878580, pbk., 300 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Responses

  1. I drive through Northampton quite often and have been interested in the history of its railway – the Ajana line – but I hadn’t really thought about in connection with mining, lead and copper apparently.

    The Abrolhos Islands feature quite heavily in Western Australian mythology – rugged individualists living in rough huts. We will have to add a Finnish element now.

    Alva goes to live in Geraldton when Hilda goes to school. Geraldton had a state boarding school for remote students.

    I wonder how much family history has been fictionalized here. Good that it has been well done. I like the Olive Kitteridge model too.

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    • The Abrolhos are also said to be haunted by the story of the Batavia, which gets a mention in the book. I read about that first in a very fine novel but nightmarish called The Company by Arabella Edge. I’m glad I was too young to know about WA’s shipwreck history when we sailed through its waters in the 1960s.

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  2. I’m so glad to see you liked this one!

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  3. I have a copy of this and will come back and comment properly once I’ve read it.

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    • Ha ha, perhaps it will put the Albrolhos on your list of holiday destinations!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] at a mine on the coast north of Geraldton (let’s reference Lisa’s recent review of The Islands) came back to Geraldton (The Fringe Dwellers, The Merry Go-Round by the Sea) and headed west […]

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  5. This sounds a strong debut. I’d not heard of those islands.

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    • They look very beautiful in the tourist promos…

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      • One day I’ll get there …

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        • We’ll send Kim from Reading Matters and get a report back, eh?

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  6. I’m not familiar with this part of Australia at all. Sounds fascinating.

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    • No, nor me. It’s a very big area to explore. I’ve been to Kalgoorlie and Perth and Rottnest Island, north to The Pinnacles, west to Wave Rock and to the wine regions of Margaret River, but that’s all.

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