Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sarah Tolmie, science fiction, Setting

‘The Fourth Island’ by Sarah Tolmie

Fiction – paperback; Tordotcom; 112 pages; 2020.

Loss, despair — and distinctive knitted jumpers* — feature strongly in The Fourth Island, a mesmerising novella by Canadian writer Sarah Tolmie.

It’s set on the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, which comprise Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr, but the story imagines a fourth island called Inis Caillte (directly translated from the Irish to mean the “lost island”).

This island is a secret until a drowned man, Jim Conneely, washes up on the shore of Inis Mór wearing a distinctive jumper that no one recognises.

The fact remains that any knitter in any town on any of the isles, or on any farm, knows a sweater knit, here in the Arans. She can probably tell you who knit it. She will know the wool and the stitches and the patterns common to each district and family and parish. She can probably tell you what saint’s day it was finished on. And if she doesn’t know herself, she knows a woman who will. […] So, when a woman tells you that it is undoubtedly an Aran sweater but it was knit by a woman neither from Inis Mór nor Inis Meáin nor Inis Oírr, you are left with a riddle.

The man is buried but the jumper is kept by Aoife, an old wise woman who wields a lot of power in the community, a kind of antithesis to the priest whose power, said to be divine, is merely in the office he holds.

To keep the jumper is a bad omen, but keep it she does, until she dies, and then “Dirty Nellie”, the village whore who is deaf and dumb, takes it for herself. The warmth of the garment offers comfort, for Nellie has terrible pain in her stomach that no amount of herbal remedies, provided by Aoife, has ever been able to ease.

The story traces what happens to Nell and a small collection of other characters who find themselves unexpectedly transported to Inis Caillte, a magical kind of island where people are happy, restored to good health — Nell, for instance, regains her hearing and her voice when she arrives — and where everyone can understand each other regardless of the language they speak.

It’s also a place where time ceases to have meaning. The story is set in 1840, but there are characters on the island who are from Cromwell’s era, 200 years earlier, which begs the question, what is going on?

Speculative fiction

The Fourth Island is speculative fiction and — SPOILER ALERT, skip to the next paragraph to avoid — I suspect the island is actually a version of heaven and that all the residents on it are dead.

It explores loss in all its many forms, including the loss of life, the loss of health, the loss of reputation, the loss of religion, the loss of pain.

It also posits the idea that loss need not necessarily be negative, for in Nellie’s case regaining her ability to hear and speak after a lifetime of being unable to do so presents her with a strangely unwelcome challenge: she must deal with her newfound loss of silence and come to terms with being a different person.

The one thing she dwelt on was the loss of her deafness — it was a loss, the loss of the person she had been before — and its meaning.

Other positives include the loss of prejudice — all the characters get on with each other and one man, in particular, realises that in his earlier life on Inis Mór he had shunned Nellie because he had rushed to judgement about her lifestyle, but now he regards her as a friend.

Oh, there’s a lot to consider and mull over and cogitate on in this short novella, which is beguiling, unsettling, melancholy and wise. It’s written in hypnotic, fable-like prose, which lends a fairytale quality to the story.

It would make a great book group choice because there’s so much to discuss. Like the best speculative fiction, it’s full of ideas and metaphors, and different readers will bring their own interpretations to bear on it. It really is a little gem of a book.

* I am using the Australian/British term jumper, but the text uses the North American term sweater.