A few months back, a friend recommended I read Michael D. O'Brien's novel Island of the World. Familiar with his work (Fr. Elijah and Strangers and Sojourners being my favorites from his Children of the Last Days series), I said "Sure, I'll have to pick that up." Little did I know it would take two hands to do so (it's 839 pages) and a good couple of months to finish it. Today, I read the last sentence, closed the cover, and am utterly and completely exhausted.
I feel like Frodo, lying in that soft bed of grass in Ithilien after his torturous trek through the pits of Mordor. In some ways, I'm reminded very much of the feelings that the Lord of the Rings stirred up in me at my first reading. It was a sweet melancholia, and in some ways I didn't want the tale to end. With Island of the World the pain was much sharper. It's realism pierced like a sword. Here was not a myth but a man, and I grew up with him, from the age of 8 or 9 until his late 70's, through love and sorrow, pain and poetry; the span of his life and experiences is massive and deeply moving. O'Brien's craft is growing more tender with the years. His characters seem to palpitate, their heartbeats pound right off of the page as they move through the world, taste and dance and sing and suffer. I suffered right along with them, and these wounds will be with me, I think, for some time. Reading this book was like open-heart surgery, and I didn't even realize I needed this operation! But the wound revealed is what St. John of the Cross called the Wound of Love. This book preaches without preaching our need for the tonic of forgiveness.
Wow.... I can't say more but to suggest committing to the work of reading this novel. And pack tissues... yeah, lots of 'em.... and you'll throw the thing down a couple of times too, by the way. It's crazy.... a crazy powerful tale of rapturous beauty rapt in frail mortality.
Peter Kreeft, one of my all time favorite authors had this to say about Island of the World.
"You will not want to put this book down until you finish it, and you will continue to live in it even after you close its covers. This story will change you. It will make you a wiser, better person. Is there any greater, rarer success we can hope for in a mere book than that?"
- Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., Boston College. Author, The Philosophy of Tolkien
Write up from O'Brien's website:
"Island of the World is the story of a child born in 1933 into the turbulent world of the Balkans and tracing his life into the third millennium. The central character is Josip Lasta, the son of an impoverished school teacher in a remote village high in the mountains of the Bosnian interior. As the novel begins, World War II is underway and the entire region of Yugoslavia is torn by conflicting factions: German and Italian occupying armies, and the rebel forces that resist them—the fascist Ustashe, Serb nationalist Chetniks, and Communist Partisans. As events gather momentum, hell breaks loose, and the young and the innocent are caught in the path of great evils. Their only remaining strength is their religious faith and their families... Ultimately this novel is about the crucifixion of a soul—and resurrection."
- from O'Brien's website
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