BOOK REVIEW: The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Form the award winning author Kiran Millwood Hargrave of ‘The Girl of Ink & Stars’ comes her much anticipated follow up novel ‘The Island at the End of Everything’ and what a book it is. A kaleidoscopic depiction of a young girls struggles on the Island of Culion in 1906. An island that is both a leaper colony and a place of discovery for her; with the arrival of a cruel government official by the name of Mr. Zamora. Ami is torn from her place of belonging and imprisoned in an orphanage on a neighbouring island – but will Ami survive, will she escape and will she make her way back to ‘The Island at the End of Everything’ will she make her way home?

‘The island changes from a dark dot to a green heaven on the horizon. High on a cross-topped cliff that slopes towards the sea is a field of white flowers, looping strangely. It is not until you are closer that you see it forms the shape of an eagle, and it is not until you are very close that you see it is made of stones. This is when your heart hardens in your chest, like petals turning to pebbles. Nanay says the white eagle’s meaning is known across all the surrounding islands, even all the places outside our sea. It means: stay away. Do not come here unless you have no choice.’

Hargrave paints a wonderful picture of life on Culion Island, the day-to-day struggles its inhabitants face with their debilitating medical issues, the friendship and love of the nuns who watch over and look after the colony and importantly the relationship between Ami and her Nanay. A relationship that from Hargrave’s first musings, us the reader can’t help but observer the beauty in the face of their predicament, because for them living here on the Island at the End of Everything with each other is living.

With the books main protagonist being a young girl and the target audience being of a similar aged, I found the message of the book spanned this age demographic and made the book truly a piece of brilliance. The book and Hargrave deals with thematic issues that are prevalent in today’s society and the power the book holds within its beautiful butterfly inlaid front cover are somewhat hard hitting and culturally relevant. Hargrave’s writing is also captivating and poetic in tone that in my opinion helps to educate its readers about a time and of a people that some would rather shun than shine the light upon – giving a voice to the voiceless and vilified.

One of my favourite books I read as a teenager and remains a favourite is ‘Papillon’. A bit of an odd choice, you may say. But I re-read the book a couple of years ago and was reminded of its brilliance, dealing with a wrongly accused man who is sentenced to prison on an island and after numerous attempts to escape and in doing so discovers a leper colony who offer him a boat and supplies to help him escape his captors and find freedom. Papillon is one of the greatest adventures of all time’ (Auguste Le Breton) and the same can be said for ‘The Island at the End of Everything’.

Hargrave’s ‘The Island at the End of Everything’ for me was a ‘Papillon’ for a new generation; it has all the brilliance of ‘Papillon’ written in an engaging and beautifully poignant way, endearing the book to the reader’s heart. Hargrave is able to write in such an enchanting way that the reader can’t help but fall under her spell; showing both skill and a deftness to her craft that is strikingly effervescent. The characterisations of Ami, Zamora and Mari and Hargrave’s ability to write conversations and thought processes that are so believable as a young girl and a villainous fiend further highlight her ability as a writer. This showing perfectly why ‘The Girl of Ink & Stars’ was such a hit with young people, books sellers and the many awards it won last year – the same will follow with this book no doubt.

The book truly turns towards brilliance with the government official Mr. Zamora’s arrival at the island. He is a character that Hargrave has brought to life and a person the reader loves to hate, a person full of vileness, brashness and a prejudice towards those who are different; trying above all to preserve his superiority and his elitist beliefs over the lives of those he has come to help and whom he has already judged as inferior.

‘’This is all in aid of reducing the spread of Mycobacterium leprae,’ Mr Zamora says importantly. ‘The disease that has taken your nose. Is that your daughter beside you?’ He does not wait for an answer. ‘How would you feel if she ended up looking like that?’

Someone has to say something, but my voice is caught in my throat. Sister Margaritte makes an involuntary movement and Father Fernan holds his hand to her the way Mr Zamora did to him, as the stranger continues to pace.

‘We are doing this not for our pleasure, oh, n. This place is a drain on the government’s finances, but we have given you a beautiful home.’’

It was also refreshing to see issue of disability addressed by Hargrave with gentleness and great respect. When Ami arrives at the orphanage on a neighbouring island she makes friends with Mari (Mariposa – butterfly in Spanish) who has been born with a birth defect to her hand causing it to appear withered and of no use. As the story progresses it’s refreshing to see a disabled character become a main player in the story’s development and Hargrave writes a wonderfully strong, independent and courageous disabled young girl. It is a breath of fresh air to see these issues being given a voice in children’s fiction and in my opinion helps to champion those who are marginalised and helps them to see them being championed in such a way.

‘’Ami!’ Mari stands, moving Kidlat behind her. ‘Stop it!’

‘You said to trust you and look. Look! We’re never going to get there – ‘

‘It wasn’t anyone’s fault –‘

‘You’re useless, both of you. Useless. Look at you –‘

Mari shoves me, hard. I fall backwards, hitting my grazed hand. The sharp shock of the pain brings all the heat rushing to it, flushing out the anger and making it shrink into shame.

‘Mari, I –‘

‘Never talk to me like that again.’ Mari brings her face down level with mine. There are hot patches of red on her pale cheeks, and the high midday sun glares through her hair, turning it into a halo. She looks like a terrible angel.

‘Never.’’

The story then moves in the last third of the book to its wonderful if somewhat heart wrenching conclusion; handled masterfully by Hargrave. The story in essence is about family, friendship, discovery, adventure and perseverance in the face of unsurmountable odds. With in-depth characters, a landscape that is vibrantly, immersive and poetically formed, dealing with issues that are as current today as they were in 1906. It is a book that both child (its intended audience) and adult can enjoy and I would challenge anyone on finishing the book to say that they haven’t been changed by that process, that they are not the person they were when they started reading ‘The Island at the End of Everything’.

My hope for this book is that the bold heart beating like butterfly wings at the centre of the story continues to beat long after the story has finished. That young people read it, take the characters to heart and in doing so give the reader the boldness to fight for what they believe. To strive forwards with the determination of Ami and the resilience of Mari and that the barriers and prejudices our young people face today would be challenged, explored and overcome.

It is a story that I cannot wait to share with my girls when they are old enough to grasp its importance.

If you thought, ‘The Girl of Ink & Stars’ was brilliant get ready for a journey of discovery that will change you forever.

But what about the butterflies I hear you ask…you’ll have to discover that part of the story for yourselves.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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Kiran Millwood Hargrave was born in London in 1990. She completed her undergraduate studies in English and Drama with Education at Cambridge University, also performing in Footlights smokers and plays. She graduated with distinction from the Creative Writing MSt at Oxford University, and was President of the Poetry Society there. She is an award-winning poet, with three collections published and work appearing in international journals such as RoomAgenda and Magma. She was a Barbican Young Poet, and has performed her work internationally, from Banff to Tokyo. She lives in Oxford with her artist boyfriend and writer friends.

The Island At The End Of Everything was published by Chicken House on 4th April 2017.

You can purchase a copy of The Island At The End Of Everything from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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Review by Ross Jeffery

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