Author: Judith Schalansky
My Rating: 4/5 Stars
Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys history, especially maritime history or anything niche. Also recommended for anyone who enjoys travel, spooky stories and learning about cultures and environments of far off islands.
I am in the middle of two novels when my roommate comes home and I see this book on the table. It turns out it is for their world building class and I am instantly intrigued. I tell them to let me know when they finish it thinking I have a week or so, but then they hand it to me the next day. Pushing the other two books aside, I devour this one in less than 24 hours. Few books allow you to travel to remote places on Earth so easily. Few books have tried in this way. The illustrations captivated me and the stories transported me to the shores of fifty different islands in Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, by Judith Schalansky.
First off, the book itself is beautiful. I love the material they used to bind it and cover it – it feels textured like rubber which adds a feeling that you are holding some king of outing manual. The color is bright orange and other than the title and author there sits two small islands amidst that sea of orange. The cover itself imbues one with a feeling of isolation that will only grow with each story as you dive into the pages.
The stories are split up by the oceans the islands are found in – Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, Antarctic, Pacific – and each new ocean spread comes with an intro page showing the entire ocean and surrounding region, along with the locations of all of the islands you are about to read about. I found this useful as I flipped back and forth to get a rough idea of where in the world each island was. The stories themselves are all framed the same way. Each island had 4 pages, the first of which shows the islands size, number of inhabitants, and a timeline of important island history. The second page is a detailed map of the entire island and then the last two pages are the stories themselves. The entire piece is a little over 200 pages, but because half of the pages are ones you will only glance at the read is pretty quick. I can see some people taking longer as they put the island’s geography to memory before readying the stories, but that wasn’t me so it was a short read.
The stories themselves were so intriguing to dig into. Most of them have a sinister side to them, whether it be exploitation, environmental destruction, loss of life or just sad tales of people trying to survive on small patches of land in an immense ocean. Some others certainly left me with a feeling of isolation and other were really heartwarming. The manner of storytelling is interesting in that the author used a pile of research material to learn as much as she could on each island and then told an important story to that island’s history through small connected snippets or a journal entry. As she states in her introduction, the facts everything is based on are real, but the stories are one person’s interpretations of how events may have unfolded. It is actually pretty cool how little goes into a lot of these stories, yet I left most of them feeling something and I often whipped out my phone to do a little additional research of my own.
In all, I had a blast reading Pocket Atlas. If you enjoy spooky stories, maritime history or just niche history in general I think this is a really cool little novel. Give it a read and let me know what your thoughts are!