It’s also one of the most rewarding and, in this elegant little book, Smith provides a fascinating survey of the interplay between those little dots of land and the human imagination. Islands can tell us a great deal about how human beings impose their dreams and assumptions on the landscape. We use words like mysterious, dangerous or beguiling to describe them though, of course, ‘an island itself is neither happy nor unhappy’. Monks head to islands to be closer to their God, writers from Homer to Swift have used islands as their canvases, and many cultures have conjured up visions of paradise or hell in an island setting. The isolated places are where the psyche soars, where castaways can discover whether their elemental skills and instincts are up to snuff, and also, more menacingly, where the contours and comforts of civilisation are apt to slip away.
Islands are about more than romance and peril, however. Much of Smith’s book looks at the complex, often poignant, ways we have exploited them. There are fascinating sections on the manifold uses to which islands have been put: from weapons testing grounds to living biological laboratories to anthropological playgrounds. Politics have often entered the fray and Smith is excellent on the ways in which islands have always been pawns in geopolitical games. He also provides witty words on the tendency of islands to breed ‘self-appointed demagogues’: ‘if you are hoping to find peaceful living under caring governance on a small piece of land in the middle of the ocean, you may well be disappointed.’
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