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Susan’s Bookshelves: Island by Aldous Huxley

When I reread (and wrote about) Brave New World in January I kept thinking of his last novel, Island (1962). I’d read it only once many years ago and misremembered as an upbeat alternative future – the other side of the dystopian coin. In fact it’s a profoundly pessimistic novel with some pretty resonant 2022 topicality.

The fictional, titular island – Pala –  is in Indonesia and has, for rather contrived reasons, managed to refine all the benefits of a Western Education, culture and the English Language alongside open-minded philosophy without corrupting industrialisation. Will Farnaby is a cynical journalist who has made rather a mess of his life so far.  He gets shipwrecked (yes, plausibility is not what this novel is about) on Pala and looked after by Doctor McPhail and his family – a useful device to show us Pala from an outsider’s point of view.

The Island is free of organised religion, dogma and cant. It has an intelligent education system – child centred in the best sense of the word. Sex is regraded as a normal, natural part of life so that if a pair of youngsters fancy each other then there’s no ideological or cultural objection to their following their instincts. Death too, while sad for those who are left, is healthily regarded as a normal process not hedged about with taboos. And of course relationships are colour blind.

It is all idyllically Utopian although personally I struggle with Huxley’s evident belief that hallucinatory drugs are a sensible part of civilised life even when used in moderation and under supervision. That doesn’t sound in the least ideal to me.

This way of life, however, is under threat. There are people on the Island, represented by the Rani and her son, who envy life in the West and want to “improve” Pana with, for example, stricter education and more rules about everything. The Island, moreover, has natural resources which people on its borders are keen to “develop” or exploit which suddenly sounds all too familiar.

It’s an interesting novel although not a great one. There is far too much didacticism in the form of one character explaining things to another for that. Well worth reading and thinking about, though.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Opening Worlds – short stories from different cultures

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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