Dream worlds: islands, isolation and disintegration

Alison Moore explores the enduring appeal of remote places, especially islands, for writers

Alison Moore at Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2018. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Remote places have an enduring appeal for writers, like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, standing “by itself against its hills”, beyond gates that are “locked and double-locked and chained and barred”, or like Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, where Jack Torrance is losing his mind while the snow comes down harder and harder, “curtaining them off from the world”.

Islands occupy a special place in the collective imagination. The mythical island of Brasil – also known as “the island of happiness” and the “Promised Land” – has purportedly been seen and even visited by voyagers including monks and historians, and was included on maps (shown off the west or south-west coast of Ireland) for hundreds of years, much like Atlantis, for which, of course, people are still looking.

The sacred Irish island of Skellig Michael was visited in 1910 by George Bernard Shaw, who wrote in a letter: “I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world.”

Islands in novels often draw on these impressions of otherworldliness, of elusive utopias. In Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic, the community of Portmantle on Heybeliada (a real Turkish island) is not easily accessed. The journey is complicated, and directions must be memorised – without them “you might never reach the place at all”. A constantly changing passphrase is required at the gate. Portmantle is a refuge for beleaguered artists, who arrive “released from everything that had weighed on [them] before”; it is a place to regain clarity. But at the same time, it sounds to the protagonist “like a perfect spot to disappear”. Looking out of a resident’s room through misted window panes, she loses her senses for an instant: “where the grounds of Portmantle should have been” she sees instead “an enormous stretch of open water… a swaying sea”. The refuge has a precarious kind of existence, which is exacerbated by the arrival of a newcomer, the sight of whom prompts a long-term resident to say, “here comes trouble”.


In Season Butler’s Cygnet, Swan Island – which is also based on a real island, off the coast of New Hampshire – is home to an old-age separatist community. The protagonist is a child who has been abandoned there, who does not belong and is not welcome in the residents’ “idyllic bubble”. She is often ignored or avoided or excluded; a door is slammed in her face. Meanwhile, the land around her house keeps falling away, dropping into the sea. This works as a metaphor for the Kid’s sense of insecurity, a sense of being in limbo – she likens being on the “freezing cold island” to “being lost in space” – but it is also true that the whole island, the residents’ haven, is sinking into the ocean.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies is set on an “island in the middle of nowhere”. On Vardø, the sun does not rise – or else does not set – for months on end. It is during the “ever-dark of winter” that the men, out fishing, are killed by a storm that “comes in like a finger snap”. The women, traumatised by what they have witnessed and by the devastation caused, begin to talk about signs that were seen, and of the storm as something that could have been sent by the Devil, or something that could be called; one of the women wonders if she herself brought this upon them. Many of them are “past caring what is true or not, only desperate for some reason, some order to the rearrangement of their lives”.

A commissioner is sent from the mainland to restore order to this community of women on this island “at the edge of civilization”. His wife learns the islanders’ ways and settles in – and “could almost forget there is a world outside Vardø, especially on days when the sea sends a mist creeping over everything” – but the commissioner has come looking for evil and sets about tearing the community apart. Hargrave’s story is based on a real Norwegian island and real historical events: a 1617 storm in which “sea and sky became one”, and the subsequent witch trials.

In novels with established island communities, it is natural for tension to be drawn from the arrival of an outsider. When there are only the new arrivals and no pre-established community, the dynamic is different. In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, a party of strangers travels from Devon to Soldier Island, described to one guest as “the most enchanting place”, to stay in a mansion “built by a millionaire [and] said to be absolutely the last word in luxury”. At the same time, the isolation of this “rock” is emphasised: “Sometimes ‘tis cut off for a week or more”. A character shown to her room by the housekeeper, “a white bloodless ghost of a woman [who] drifted from the room like a shadow”, looks out of the window: “How big the sea was! From here there was no land to be seen anywhere”. And with their host unsettlingly absent, there is an air of uncertainty and unease long before the first murder occurs.

Although in more sinister island-bound stories the physical isolation serves to trap, the seclusion can also have a distorting effect which itself shapes what happens. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the schoolboys marooned by a plane crash on a remote Pacific island see strange midday mirages: “Sometimes land loomed where there was no land and flicked up like a bubble as the children watched.” At first, the boys try for democracy and co-operation, but the sense of order deteriorates, exacerbated by their fear of the island, paranoia focused on an unidentified “beast”, which comes “in the dark” and “out of the sea”, which might be “a snake-thing” or “a ghost”. The group divides: some of the boys paint themselves a “new face”, leaving behind “the taboo of the old life”, and social norms swiftly collapse.

When I first started thinking about the setting for my new novel, I was interested in inventing a place that was almost familiar but whose rules and ways were subtly different, in such a way that my protagonist would struggle to get to grips with the culture. I’d initially imagined her arriving into a rather closed, insular community; instead, Sandra is one of six people arriving on the previously private island of Lieloh for a two-week artists’ retreat. It is a destination that has always fascinated her and she embarks on the journey with high hopes, picturing “somewhere unspoilt”, imagining the group as a kind of artists’ colony, a community of artists supporting and inspiring one another. She is in fact picturing the island of happiness, elusive at best and perhaps non-existent. The island of Lieloh might be part of her dream world, but dreams can be confusing, anxious things.

I completed the first draft of The Retreat in February 2020, so despite its themes, it is not a story inspired by self-isolation or lockdown; nonetheless, our collective experience during the intervening months might give narratives about islands and isolation an unexpected resonance.

The Retreat (Salt Publishing) is out now. Alison Moore's first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, winning the McKitterick Prize. alison-moore.com