Monday, August 30, 2010

Book Review: The Undiscovered Island

Here's the first of my two reviews for the August Historical Novels Review.

Darrell Kastin, Center for Portuguese Culture University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 2009, $25, 410pp, 978-1-933227-23-8

Julia Castro has arrived in the Azores from her home in California, searching for her father Sebastião, an eccentric writer and historian, who has gone missing. The police and locals don't seem to be willing or able to help in the search for her father. In order to better understand and perhaps find him, Julia pores over his writings – and falls into his obsession with the history of Portugal, the Azores, and how the history of their own family intertwines – particularly with that of Inês de Castro, the famous mediaeval Queen Who Was Crowned After Death.

Coinciding with Julia's arrival, a local volcano's rumblings causes not only devastating earthquakes but also a new island to rise out of the ocean – an occurrence her father believed would come, and would spell the arrival of the mythic Enchanted Isle.

When her brother Antonio arrives to bring Julia back to California, they fall under the spell of Sebastião's writings and the mysteries of the Azores. They set out to search the dangerous seas for their father and for the Enchanted Isle.

I found this book frustrating. There are lovely scenes and interesting concepts (inheritance both national and personal, the importance of history, the influence of place) and yet the writing is maddeningly uneven. The first two-thirds is at turns rambling and jagged, and yet the final third is magical and beautiful. The dialog is terribly stilted, and yet the descriptions are beautifully poetic. I never felt connected to Julia - I never felt that she had any real concern about her father's disappearance – and yet the supporting characters are fascinating and well-drawn.

Had this story been tighter it would have had more impact – it would have made a fascinating novella or short story, but I don't know that it is quite as successful as a novel.

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