Malachy Tallack is developing quite a talent for moseying into areas of literary endeavour that already seem to be perilously overcrowded and offering something fresh and unexpected. In his first book, 60 Degrees North, reviewed in these pages last year, he brought an intriguing new approach to the fashionable-bordering-on-clichéd extreme northern latitudes travelogue by putting a deeply personal slant on his adventures. Now, in The Undiscovered Islands, he ventures into another area that has proved very popular with authors of literary non-fiction and once again manages to find a novel angle.
The Undiscovered Islands is, as its title suggests, is a survey of 24 islands that never existed, illustrated in wonderfully ornate style by Katie Scott. For example, Sandy Island in the Coral Sea was finally proven to be a non-entity in 2012, having regularly appeared on maps after it was “discovered” by a whaling ship in 1876.
This book is a an attempt to make the reader feel “re-enchanted” with geography. Never mind the sterile certainty of Google Earth, here’s Onaseuse, an island in the South Pacific “discovered” in 1825 by one Captain Hunter and the crew of his ship the Donna Carmelita – a place where the locals reportedly carried spears up to 40ft long and had the little fingers of their left hands cut off at the second joint. The whole story was almost certainly an invention by Hunter and his men. With Onaseuse, as with many islands in this book, the charm lies in trying to separate the facts from the fiction.
The islands here aren’t all deliberate inventions. Some have religious or mythical significance – like Hawaiki, an island the Maoris believe lies to the north-east of New Zealand where their ancestors came from.
That said, while Tallack mostly writes very entertainingly, this book is what journalists would describe as “a cuttings job” and as a result it can occasionally get a little dry. Hopefully his next project will allow him to get out of the library.