Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Robinson by Muriel Spark

If you ask me how I remember the island, what it was like to be stranded there by misadventure for nearly three months, I would answer that it was a time and landscape of the mind if I did not have the visible signs to summon its materiality: my journal, the cat, the newspaper cuttings, the curiosity of my friends; and my sisters--how they always look at me, I think, as one returned from the dead.

There is no more appropriate island on which to be shipwrecked, I suppos, than one named Robinson. There was Robinson Crusoe, for one, and the Swiss Family Robinson, who weren't actually named Robinson (come on, they were Swiss) but instead were meant to be a Swiss version of Crusoe, and I guess a family version too. Muriel Spark's Robinson cuts through all that nomenclature and presents himself only as "Robinson," and calls the island on which he lives the same. Like the streamlining and concision of all of Spark's novels, here's the island-dwelling icon whittled to his essence.

Robinson lives all alone on his island with his young helper Miguel, and is not exactly pleased when a plane crashes on it. The only survivors are Jimmie Waterford, a Scandinavian (not his real name) who happens to be Robinson's cousin, an oily, disagreeable New Age huckster named Tom Wells, and the protagonist, a young woman named January Marlow. As put out as Robinson is, his guests are even more put out to discover that the next boat out doesn't arrive at Robinson for another three months.

During their time on the island, Robinson cares well for the three survivors, if with a characteristically annoyed detachment. January begins to manifest feelings toward Jimmie, and as it turns out nobody likes Tom Wells. Spark juggles this dynamic for half the book, before suddenly, strangely, Robinson disappears, though his torn, bloody clothes have been left behind en route to a man-sized volcanic fissure in the island's surface. What follows is a tense standoff between the three survivors, while January tries to figure out who the murderer is and if she might be next. It wouldn't be in Spark's style to have this tension descend into violence, but the island is riddled with secret tunnels and provides a good setting for a pretty rousing, if low-key, mystery-adventure tale.

In many ways, Robinson struck me as a "beach read"--fraught with suspense, but light and mildly forgettable. Of course, the writing is a thousand times better than your average Patricia Cornwell book ("the mustard field staring at me with a yellow eye, the blue and green lake seeing in me a hard turquoise stone") and, as in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark does marvelous work making her characters seem full and alive in a minimum of brush strokes.

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