The story opens with Shaw, a hard-edged Australian who journeys by plane to a remote South Seas island owned by Vornis, a depraved drug dealer. Vornis is hosting a gathering of assorted terrorists and criminals to be arriving about a week after Shaw does. Shaw hopes to sell a stolen Impressionist painting to Vornis – with an added risky twist in that his offering is counterfeit. Even more than cheating Vornis, he wants to make underworld connections with the soon-to-be-arriving guests. It is a goal he has been working toward for the past six years.
However, he is badly shaken to see that Vornis has a captive sex toy – Lee, a young American DEA agent who is almost in a catatonic state after being starved, raped, and brutalized (off-page) for weeks on the island after a botched raid in Colombia. Vornis hands over Lee for Shaw’s private pleasure, obviously intending to throw Lee to the group when the other men arrive and then kill him. For a week, Shaw must pretend to abuse Lee while struggling with his conscience over whether to try to save him.
The Island is an unforgettable read, but perhaps a difficult one for the tenderhearted reader. The brutality happens off-page, but the imagination can supply even worse details than would be written. The effect of such treatment upon Lee is starkly realistic. The atmosphere of the novel’s first half is unrelentingly tense and filled with dread, and the pacing never drags. The prose is perfect, and the setting is sharply vivid with unique touches (such as the coral floor to the open air shower) that make the island real and not just another generic tropical setting.
Best of all are how three-dimensional Shaw and Lee are, and the subtle but rock-solid support that the author weaves into the story to clarify their personalities and behavior. You might be so uncomfortable (as I was) by the story as to try to minimize it intellectually with a thought like, “No one could be as horrifyingly vulnerable as Lee.” Then you learn how young he is, what he’s been through, and that he fought “like an animal” when he first was captured, and you accept the way he is. You might think, “No one as morally bankrupt as Shaw would consider saving Lee,” but then you learn about the stray dog he took in and the female friend who keeps him in touch with his humanity.
Over the first half of the story, my one problem narrowed down to Shaw, whom I saw as having a heart of stone. I mean, he’s so into his stolen painting deal that he’s letting Lee circle the drain for a week? The amazing writing pulled me onward anyway. At the midpoint of the book, I got the deeper context on Shaw that puts everything in a different perspective, and the book was perfect for me from that point on.
Shaw is a deeply mysterious person – aware that he is risking his life, but not especially moved by it. He’s so focused on his task and so subsumed in the darkness and isolation of his nomadic path that he’s barely Australian anymore and he’s verging on losing his humanity. The job is everything. To see him shift out of this mindset in the last half of the book is nothing short of witnessing someone’s redemption. The second half of the book introduces a deep compassion and a complexity that make the happy ending well-earned. Very highly recommended!