Island writing is a unique genre. Any fiction, be it thriller, drama, fantasy or anything else takes on a different soul if it is set on an island. On a humid warm evening, the audience joins the chair in conversation with Donald S. Murray and Steve Sem-Sandberg. But first, a song composed in memory of the Iolaire disaster; 2019 is its 100th anniversary.
Murray’s As the Women Lay Dreaming is set on the Isle of Lewis in 1936. It centres on a survivor of the Iolaire disaster of 1919. He looks after his dead daughter’s children, when they are sent to live with him. He tries to cope with the ghosts of his past to shape their future. Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Tempest is set on an island in the Norwegian fjord and is of course, a nod to Shakespeare. With these books in mind the authors talk of their personal experience of island life.
Murray moved to Lewis when he was 8 and he found a small community where the 1919 event was still fresh tn the memory. Crofting communities felt it incumbent upon them to keep retelling the tales of the dead and the survivors. Sandberg too, grew up on an island in Norway and adds his experiences to the mix. In particular, he talks about the German occupation and how that left a bitter taste in the mouths of inhabitants for many decades.
Island people are part of geographically isolated communities. They tend to have their own subculture, myths and legends, and are still largely cut off from the modern world. In this, Sandberg’s Prospero comes to life, as does a Caliban. The themes are perfectly suited to the unique personalities shaped by geography and society here. A number of thematic congruences form the crux of the discussion. And we end full circle as we began, with a song. This time it is in Gaelic, and the singer’s voice is ethereal. It brings to life in the mind’s eye, the rugged relief of an island, through the salty spray and a pale evening mist.