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The magical allure of islands

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession. By Gavin Francis.Canongate; 256 pages; $30 and £20. 

AS A CHILD, Gavin Francis yearned for islands. On caravan holidays to the coast of Fife in Scotland, he was kept awake by the strobe of the lighthouse on the Isle of May (pictured). He pored over sketches of the island’s wildlife, picturing the far-flung journeys of its migrant birds. In its promise of isolation and self-fulfilment, the isle stood for the strange land of adulthood itself.

Islands are inseparable from stories. From Odysseus’s Ithaca to Prospero’s place of exile, they are way-stations for the imagination. They represent fantasies of wealth and are sites of political refuge or experiment. They have also been used to banish and maroon the ill, unwanted or unlucky. Many island communities are scarred by colonisation. Above all, Mr Francis notes, islands summon visions of separation and stillness, evoking “a sense of reverence, and an absence of distraction”. They offer a chance to breathe, and to think.

Mr Francis is a doctor as well as a writer, and for him the quiet simplicity of island living is a counterbalance to “the torrent of life through the clinic”. His meditative book tries to unpick this allure, combining as it does isolation, independence and flight.

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