In his exceptional debut novel, A Line of Blood, Ben McPherson presented a stand-alone domestic suspense novel from the perspective of the husband. He now returns with The Island and once again focuses on a family in crisis, however, unlike the strain in that earlier book, The Island’s central trauma is a large-scale terrorist attack which changes not just the core family in the novel, but all of Norway. While Cal Curtis, the husband and father, is the point-of-view character for the bulk of the novel, The Island is really a deep-dive character study of this entire family and an indictment of a culture – worldwide – which stokes the embers of violence by amplifying hatred and discord.
The Island hardly allows the reader a moment to settle into the novel before thrusting them forth on a path packed with suspense, fear, and danger. This first chapter recounts the actions of a pair of terrorists as they storm an island in Oslo, Norway, the site of a summer camp for teens. It is a calculated assault with many casualties and the depiction of this violence pulls no punches. In an almost cinematic fashion, readers watch as these two soldiers gun down innocent victims across the island, but the author is wise enough to temper these difficult moments by also allowing readers to witness various acts of courage and resilience on the part of the unsuspecting camp-goers. In a nice bookend structure, Ben McPherson places another action-oriented chase scene at the end of the novel, leading up to the final moments which once again take place on the island.
So, what of the Curtis family? Little did they know when they said goodbye to their eldest daughter Licia, on that particular morning that it would be the beginning of a painful journey which would eventually find them attending the trial for these two mass murderers. Because no family lives in a vacuum, the Curtis’ have their share of personal challenges as well. Cal, a Scottish native, feels very much out of place in the Nordic society; his wife Elsa seems distant and Cal has evidence that she is likely having an affair; younger daughter, Vee, feels guilt and anguish for not having treated her older sister kinder when she had the opportunity and finds solace in both violent videogames and excessive analysis of the terrorist attack. Each of these characters has an arc which will alter their existence and leave them in very different places by the end of the novel.
Ben McPherson structures his novel to remind readers that humans can play many roles simultaneously. Cal can act as a husband, father, foreigner, skeptic, spectator, and countless other roles all at the same time – that is what makes being human such a complex and beautiful experience. But, just as one can serve all those positive functions, there is inevitably persons who take on the task of being the villain, displaying traits that are less desirable and even harmful to others. In all honesty, everyone is made up of varying degrees of both the good and the bad; the journey of life is about making the choices that hopefully push the balance toward the positive side.
And therein lies another theme of The Island. Where does hatred come from and how has our modern society not only allowed it to flourish, but downright put into place a social media system designed to capitalize on it? Radicalization is born and breed in these cyber realms and sometimes it falls to the most innocent amongst us to point out the flaws and show a path toward betterment. The journey of The Island is very much a personal one for the Curtis family, but the lessons learned by them are truths the reader will carry with them moving forward into the real world.
Ben McPherson is a demonstrative writer; he draws the reader in and allows them to experience what it would be like to exist under these challenging circumstances, while never losing sight of the fact that a novel’s ultimate purpose is to entertain. The Island features peaks and valleys of emotional turmoil culminating in a truly gut-wrenching final moment that resonates in profound ways. With just two books so far, Ben McPherson has demonstrated a unique ability to get into the skin of his characters and convey subtle emotions in a dynamic and effective manner. Reading one of his novels is not something one soon forgets.