Thursday, October 22, 2020

"The Fourth Island"

Sarah Tolmie is a poet, speculative fiction writer, finalist for the Crawford Award and professor of English at the University of Waterloo. Her books of poetry, Trio in 2015 and The Art of Dying in 2018, were shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award and the Griffin Prize, respectively. Her fiction includes the novels The Little Animals (2019) and The Stone Boatmen (2014), the dual novella collection Two Travelers (2016), and the short fiction collection NoFood (2014).

Tolmie applied the Page 69 Test to her new novella, The Fourth Island, and reported the following:
From page 69:
This was more convenient as winter came on and more people competed for space indoors, he told himself. They drank nettle and wild mint tea—there was no black tea to be had on the island, and Philip missed it sorely—and talked about things that were of less and less interest to Pádraig. Eventually, the boy begged off and stayed home with his brothers to help with the net-mending and so on. This left the two of them alone. Feeling more and more tense and somehow expectant whenever she was around, Philip finally said to her one day, “I don’t know that there’s anything more I can teach you, Nellie.”

“So, maybe there’s something I can teach you,” she said. Philip started to blush at that and went on blushing for about three days. At the end of that time, they both emerged from his cottage and went to the Flaherty farm.

Old Anna saw them come over the hill, hand in hand. “Ah,” she said. Thomas’s heart sank within him. As Philip could not figure out how to preside at his own wedding and nobody wanted to fetch the priest from the other side of the island, he and Nellie stood up before the company and declared that they were married, as the custom was. They had a big dinner with a bit of fiddle music and that was that. Thomas was sad but philosophical. He had always known that there was no way he could compete with Father Murphy if he became a contender.
I would tend to agree with Marshall McLuhan about this (as indeed about many things). Page 69 of a book — assuming that it has 69 pages at least, or the experiment becomes surreal — may tell you more about an author’s style than page one, or the last page. On those pages things are being accomplished that do not need to happen anywhere else in the story, and they can significantly impact the style. As writers who want to sell books we are all under terrible pressure to do some goddamn fancy thing on page one that we may never do again. McLuhan grasped this fact though he wasn’t a fiction writer himself.

So, if you like the writing on page 69 you will probably like the writing of The Fourth Island in general. There is nothing more important than this.

This section marks the final getting-together of Nellie, a girl of 18 or so who arrived on the lost island in 1828 as she was dying of a fever on the next-door island of Inis Mór, and Philip Murphy, a Catholic priest who arrived there in 1830 just as he was about to be bayoneted in a square in Brussels. So they are contemporaries (and not everyone is in this book). But their lives could hardly have been more different, even though they are both Irish and were born within 100 miles of each other. Nellie wakes up on Inis Caillte no longer deaf; she has to learn to live in the world in a totally different way. Philip teaches her to read; he shares his clerical learning with her. She is transformed by this and ends up becoming a powerful and celebrated poet. At the same time, he falls in love with her and is also transformed. In marrying her, he also has to learn to live in the world in an entirely different way.

This passage of the book reveals what I might call its typical ratio of the ordinary and the extraordinary: at one level what happens to Nellie and Philip is mundane and might have happened anywhere (though with different consequences). Yet the means by which they ended up on this mysterious island are unknown; how Nellie’s deafness was cured is unknown; it is equally miraculous that the two can understand each other when they speak, as Nellie speaks Irish and Philip English. The books that they read together are in Latin and German, yet if they read them aloud to Irish-speaking villagers, they hear it as Irish. So something else is going on.
Visit Sarah Tolmie's website.

--Marshal Zeringue