Book review: Burnt Island

Burnt Island.Burnt Island by Alice Thompson.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

I’d read the blurb for this book – writer applies for a fellowship on a Scottish island and mysteries ensue – and noted the price (three bucks on Kindle!) and took the plunge. I mean, I’ve spent more on bad coffee, let alone good spookiness.

Imagination is a terrible thing, Max. It perverts reality. You can lose yourself in it. Not realise what’s really happening to you.

This is good spookiness.

Alice Thompson’s brief novel tells the story of Max, a writer of several mostly unsuccessful novels. He wins a place on a remote Scottish island, populated by, well, island people, and soon finds himself drawn into various intrigues.

Or are they intrigues? Max is under the gun, and needs to produce a best-seller – no symbolism thanks very much – during his stay on the island. He’s stressed. He has writer’s block. And his home life has disintegrated in an acrimonious divorce. He’s stressed: and who doesn’t hear that little voice within rationalising every little thing when they’re stressed?


It doesn’t help that Max ends up staying in the home of a reclusive writer – an architecturally-designed fortress owned by a Great Man Of Literature who had one masterpiece and hasn’t yet followed it with anything. Fame is on hand, even at such a remote locale. Max is constantly pressed up against the high tide mark of publishing success.

The story unfolds in the finest gothic manner. There’s a lot going on which could be absolutely nothing – or it could be something a lot, lot worse. A liminal zone, the supernatural (or at least, the unnatural) seem to leach into island life, ratcheting up angst accordingly.

I’m uncertain why so many reviewers seem to dislike this novel. It’s an excellent examination of the self-lacerating gig that is writing, and of the wankery that is the publishing world. I enjoyed the sort of outsider-where-they’re-not-wanted vibe the novel has, a kind of bookish riffing on The Wicker Man or The Magus. True, the tale is short on detail or slavish backstory but the effect far exceeds what I’d expected. It’s a delightfully creepy little read that enjoyably combines psychological horror with weirdness.

Burnt Island is something I devoured quickly. I find, however, the memory lingers.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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