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Fiction Literary


by (author) Johanna Skibsrud

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2019
Literary, Visionary & Metaphysical, Political
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2019
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2020
    List Price

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From the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of The Sentimentalists comes the story of a revolution on an imaginary island.
"Reading Island is a searing, vertiginous experience. Hailing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to interrogate our current moment in history, Skibsrud has created an uncanny and uncomfortable representation of power deeply corrupted. The text feels both historic and futuristic; it is discomfiting and necessary. Don’t look away." - Erin Wunker, Notes From a Feminist Killjoy

On an imaginary island, one whose socio-economic divide runs deep, an insurrection is brewing. Over the course of a day, the lives of two women--one a rebel, one a diplomat--will be forever changed.
Lota is a restless islander who works at a fish factory but is looking for a larger life. When she meets charismatic leader Kurtz, her life comes into sharp focus. Together, Kurtz's group of misfits plot to overthrow the island's occupying power. They plan to charge the embassy. They plan to capture Ø Com's outer station--the gateway to the entire empire's wireless operations. History does not--Kurtz urges her soldiers--have to repeat itself. As the past and future converge on this one day, a new world order is within reach. They cannot fail.
Rachel is an anxious diplomat who is counting down the final hours of her service on the island. Her family has fled to the capital after escalating racial tensions have put her daughter's safety in jeopardy. She is eager to follow despite the fissures that are starting to show in her marriage. But when she arrives at the embassy and hears gunshots ringing through the corridors, she knows this is no ordinary day. As the hours lengthen and Rachel is held captive, she begins to wonder if she'll ever see her loved ones again and what her complicity has meant as the sinister operations of her government start to surface.
Part fantasy, part parable, Island deftly explores essential questions of history and responsibility. It asks us to consider our legacies of cultural imperialism and the hidden costs of our wireless world. Urgent, illuminating, and thought-provoking, it asks us how we can imagine a future that does not run along the exact same lines as the past.

About the author

Johanna Skibsrud is a novelist, poet and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arizona. Her debut novel, The Sentimentalists, was awarded the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, making her the youngest writer to win Canada's most prestigious literary prize. The book was subsequently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Award and is currently translated into five languages. The New York Times Book Review describes her most recent novel, Quartet for the End of Time (Norton 2014) as a "haunting" exploration of "the complexity of human relationships and the myriad ways in which identity can be malleable." "It is exhilarating", writes the Washington Post, "to join a novelist working at these bracing heights." Johanna is also the author of two collections of short fiction: This Will Be Difficult to Explain (2011; shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award) and Tiger, Tiger (2018), a children's book, and three books of poetry. Her latest poetry collection, The Description of the World (2016), was the recipient of the 2017 Canadian Author's Association for Poetry and the 2017 Fred Cogswell Award. Johanna's poems and stories have been published in Zoetrope, Ecotone, and Glimmertrain Magazine, among numerous other journals. Her scholarly essays have appeared in, among other places, The Luminary, Excursions, Mosaic, TIES, and The Brock Review. A critical monograph titled The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics is forthcoming. A novel, Island, will also be published by Hamish Hamilton Canada in fall 2019.

Johanna Skibsrud's profile page


  • Long-listed, Sunburst Award For Excellence In Canadian Literature Of The Fantastic

Excerpt: Island (by (author) Johanna Skibsrud)

It was not gradual. For at least several seconds Lota lingered, drifting among images from dreams she no longer recalled. But then the images vanished, the dream dissolved. She sat up in bed, already fully awake.
   Her clothes had been laid out carefully the night before and now she dressed quickly in a pair of army-green cargo pants and a cobalt football jersey with the Brazilian national team’s logo on the front nearly rubbed out.
   The room was rented. Up three crooked flights of stairs in an old cable company building that used to house the foreign workers. These days, foreigners hardly ever came to the island and, whenever they did, they were flown in and out at the north end. They did their work at the new cable station that had been constructed there, and never actually set foot in town.
   Lota had been in the room six months, but it was still nearly as bare as when she’d first arrived. She’d hardly unpacked, was still living out of a single suitcase. There really was nowhere to unpack, even if she’d wanted to. The room had no closet, or drawers of any kind — only a single bed in the corner and a small table beside it, which supported a cheap porcelain lamp. Also on the table were Lota’s mobile phone and a glass of water, half drunk. Her suitcase, in the middle of the floor, gaped.
Opposite the bed and next to the door were a small sink and mirror. A bar of soap, a comb, and a toothbrush balanced on the rounded edge of the sink. Lota stood in front of the mir­ror now, gazing at her reflection in the spotted glass. The room was so narrow that if the door beside her opened she would need to step aside.
   But the door never opened, except when Lota herself en­tered and left the room. No one came to visit, or even knew where she lived. Her family in the village believed she lived with her auntie Toni, in the shopping district. No one had in fact spoken with Aunt Toni in many years and she didn’t have a tele­phone. It was safe, therefore, to say, “I am living with Auntie.” Nobody questioned her, but neither would they have known where to look for her if they’d needed to. Lota went back to the village frequently enough that the idea never crossed their minds. She saved just enough of her salary, and she brought it home every two weeks, along with tinned meat, potato chips, toilet paper, and other odds and ends from town.
   She worked at the fish plant, fifty hours a week, and when she wasn’t working she was either at the gym or at headquar­ters. By the time she got back to her room, she just fell into bed —sometimes without taking off her shoes.
   Lota splashed cold water onto her face and examined her reflection. The mirror was chipped in the corner and the glass rusted. In places it was difficult to tell what spots were the spots on the glass and what spots were her own. She was naturally freckled, like her redheaded grandmother.
   It was not white blood that ran in their family, her mother used to say: it was fire. The family could count back one thou­sand generations, knew how they were related to the sea, the sky, and to the hot lava that boiled beneath them. But like prac­tically everyone else on the island, her mother never spoke of the family’s white ancestors: the Irish and German settlers who’d come for the sugar trade, their colonial masters, or those — from all over Europe and America — who’d arrived on the island along with the first telegraph wire.
   In the old days, “white ghosts” had flooded the island and practically every islander was employed by one. The grandparents recalled this time fondly now, but whenever they spoke of it it was always as if the “white ghosts” had just been passing through. As if they belonged — and could only belong — nowhere, to no one.
   Yes, in those days, the old people said, there’d been a sta­tion, long since demolished, nicknamed “the old chateau.” It had had something like fifty rooms, including a billiard room, a dance hall, and a library. There’d been little electric bells in every bathroom that when rung would almost instantly sum­mon a Chinese servant.
   After the war, a new station was constructed with none of these finer points. It was located underground in an old fallout shelter with twenty-four-inch-thick walls; the only luxury in the place was a wall of showers where employees could wash off radioactive material in case of a nuclear attack. But at least there were still jobs. Lota’s father had been em­ployed there, briefly — and her grandfather and great-grandfather before him. But in less than a generation, everything had changed. Ø Com, the Danish outfit that acquired the station in the late seventies, laid off nearly all local workers, then simply stopped hiring.
   They built an even newer station on the island’s north end, so that what had once been the “new station” became the “old” or the “main” station and the even newer one was referred to as the “outer station” — if it was ever referred to at all.
   Mostly, because no one who lived on the island had ever set foot there, they didn’t call it anything, and half the time they even seemed to forget it existed. The work at both stations was done remotely these days, using computers, or else was too specialized for the undertrained local employees. Technicians and engineers were flown in for monthly service trips, and though a handful of islanders had been hired at the main sta­tion as janitors, desk clerks, or guards, no one but foreigners ever visited the outer station. It was as if, even before it was constructed, it had already disappeared: every official depiction of the island after 1982 left the entire northern end —occupied by the Empire, and by Ø — entirely blank.
   The island’s history was another blank spot. Except on very rare occasions, no one spoke of the day that, nearly fifty-five years ago, they’d looked up and — miracle of miracles! — seen snow raining down slowly from the sky. Or about the sixteen years they’d spent after that living as refugees on the Surigao coast. 
   They didn’t talk about the war, either — in which more than half of the island’s young men had fought and died on behalf of the Empire. Or, except in passing, of the telegraph days, or of sugarcane, or of sandalwood, or of coconut oil. It was really no wonder, then, when you thought about it, that, aside from sto­ries of boiling hot lava and fire, no one seemed to recall exactly how light skin and red hair had got into the blood.

Editorial Reviews

Longlisted for the 2020 Sunburst Awards For Excellence In Canadian Literature Of The Fantastic
Advance praise for Island:
"Reading Island is a searing, vertiginous experience. Hailing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to interrogate our current moment in history, Skibsrud has created an uncanny and uncomfortable representation of power deeply corrupted. The text feels both historic and futuristic; it is discomfiting and necessary. Don’t look away." —Erin Wunker, author of Notes From a Feminist Killjoy
Featured on the CBC's list of "fiction to watch for this fall"

Praise for Johanna Skibsrud:

"It is exhilarating to join a novelist working at these bracing heights." —The Washington Post
"Any work by . . . Johanna Skibsrud deserves attention, and her new novel, Island, is no exception. Its strengths are evident, with its wealth of imagery and the exploration of how the mundane can at any moment become mysterious, or even magical. . . . Skibsrud is a master . . . [she] can make your head spin and dares you to think.” —The Winnipeg Free Press

"Skibsrud is a writer of profound intelligence whose talent deserves applause." —The Chronicle-Herald
"Skibsrud crafts a fast-paced story of identity and insurrection . . . Island offers a thrilling vision of global corporate power played out in the lives of two headstrong and independent women who must confront various absences, including the intractable loss of identity." —Quill & Quire

"Skibsrud’s reimagining of Heart of Darkness is a timely novel in the age of 'us' and 'them', a mentality that seems exacerbated by the current political situation. This novel forces us to contemplate our role in the various structure that form our identity, be it political, historical or political. It reminds us that governments can be built on precarious scaffolds that strive more towards power than people."

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