Island of the World
This novel is a life. At its end, I felt as though I had walked with Josip Lasta through time--through mountain villages and childhood, through bustling cities and oppressive regimes, through the unraveling and reconstruction of a mind, through love and darkness and hate. I saw his life through the golden eyes of a child, and I felt like a child. I saw it through the hardened eyes of a man wronged by the world, through the warm eyes of a husband and father, through the joyful eyes of an old man enlightened by pain. Each of the eyes were mine.
In the 1930’s, before the immortal nation-states gathered for World War II, the Baltic nations were torn apart by a smaller, more complex struggle. Axis powers, fascists, Serb nationalists, and Communists Partisans all fought for control of Yugoslavia, uprooting and ruining lives in the process. This is the world that Josip was born into--a world of troubles. And the trouble found Josip quickly. A long path stretches from there, diamonds and devils around every corner. This is a story that pushes hard into the human experience, reaching for the thin place between hopelessness and faith. Josip feels every ounce of it, and so will you. This is the joy of such a work of art: we get to walk through an entire life with a character that is real. Every moment of pain hurts as if it were true, and every triumph feels like true glory.
Michael O’Brien is a master artist who knows how to do justice to a hallowed subject. His prose is beautiful. His symbolism is light. His empathy with Josip is true. The darkness is truly dark, and the light is truly brilliant. This is not a fun read; this is a pilgrimage. Like all true art, it stirs up a wake of questions. Can you conquer the haunting specters of your past? Can a poem or song defeat a tyrant? Will pain ever truly turn to joy?
...and it comes to him slowly, slowly, that written in the cosmos is both a promise of joy and a promise of sorrow. Beyond them and through them is the promise of final victory. He can feel hope now, a sense that even sorrows may become part of the coming victory. He will suffer, but he will no longer suffer alone.
Some questions are answered, and some are left as angels to be wrestled with. So it should be. But Island of the World asks one great question: When a life is burned to the ground, what can the coals ignite?