There’s something idyllic about an island setting. Whether it’s a spectacular uninhabited beach, or a bustling metropolis in the ocean, when we read to escape we often turn to books set on islands. But there’s another side: islands where murders happen, islands where all hope is abandoned, islands you wouldn’t want to visit in your worst nightmares. Here are eleven books set on islands from both ends of the spectrum.
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
One of the classic books set on islands is Lord Of The Flies – you probably had to read it in high school. It sounds like it should be fun, a bunch of kids survive a plane crash without a scratch and find themselves on an uninhabited island with no grown-ups and lots of fun to be hand. Of course, things take a dark turn. The kids form factions, and battle each other for the best approach to surviving on their own – and a pig comes a cropper. It’s a cautionary tale wrapped in an adventure novel (with no girls). Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
You definitely don’t want an invite to join this island getaway. In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people are lured to a mansion on a private island. Each of them have their own reason for coming, each of them have something to hide. It’s a classic locked room mystery, from the Queen of Crime, with the island setting the perfect foil to cut the characters off from help. One of them is murdered, and then another, and then another… who is behind it? And how do they know everyone’s secrets? Read my full review of And Then There Were None here.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
What if your idyllic island wasn’t just an escape from the horrors of the world, it was a sanctuary your father had specifically designed to keep you “safe”? In The Water Cure, three sisters are kept in their family island compound – and strangers are kept out – by barbed wire and buoys. That much isolation makes anyone crazy, and this family has developed a cult-like web of rituals. Still, they’re getting along fine, until their patriarch disappears and three strange men wash up on shore. This is an intense cat-and-mouse story, and one of the best books set on islands in recent years.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Books set on islands – well, books in general – began with Robinson Crusoe. It was one of the first English-language novels ever written, and it has inspired generations of literature ever since. The titular character is marooned on deserted islands, not once, but twice. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy (*eye roll*) – Crusoe represents the worst of the overt racism, sexism, and narcissism so prevalent at the time (and, sadly, today). From a psychological perspective, this is a fascinating read and the setting will have you dreaming of your own shipwreck, but the attitudes and mores it depicts are a little hard to stomach for a contemporary reader. Read my full review of Robinson Crusoe here.
Sex And Vanity by Kevin Kwan
Sex And Vanity begins with 19-year-old Lucie attending the Capri wedding of her former babysitter, escorted by her older cousin who intends to “keep her out of trouble”. Of course, trouble finds Lucie regardless, in the form of the charismatic and enigmatic George Zao. All of the players are rich beyond measure, and the wedding is an exercise in especially-conspicuous consumption, exactly what you’d expect from the pen of Kevin Kwan (of Crazy Rich Asians fame). If you like your books set on islands with a generous dollop of glitz and glamour, this is the book for you. Read my full review of Sex And Vanity here.
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
Guernsey is a teeny tiny island – area just 65 km² (25 sq mi) – in the English Channel, just off the coast of Normandy. It’s also the setting of Mary Ann Shaffer’s historical fiction novel, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society. It’s an unassuming setting, nothing like the tropical beaches or bustling metropolises of some of the other books on this list, but it’s the perfect backdrop for this post-WWII story. This epistolary novel is “a celebration of the written word in all its guises and of finding connection in the most surprising ways”, even on teeny tiny islands.
The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man And The Sea is one of the shorter books set on islands, but Papa still packs a powerful punch. The titular old man is a Cuban fisherman, down on his luck, who sets out from his island home to chase one last catch, the biggest marlin you can imagine. It’s a simple story, but one so impactful that it was cited when Hemingway was awarded his Nobel Prize For Literature (“for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style”). This is a book that can be read in a single sitting, but will stay with you for years.
The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun
In The Disaster Tourist, a trip to the island of Mui is the least profitable offering for a company specialising in vacations to places that have been devastated by climate change and natural disasters. Yona – once one of the company’s top representatives, now facing termination – is charged with posing as a regular holiday-maker on Mui, to see if she can’t figure out what’s lacking. Would a company really fabricate a catastrophe to boost sales? This is an “eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility”, with thrills to rival any crime novel, and it will surely come to mind next time you book a holiday.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
One of the most mysterious books set on islands is The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (first published in the original Japanese in 1994, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder in 2019). On this unnamed island, apparently existing under totalitarian rule, people are made to “forget” objects and concepts. Ribbons, maps, emeralds, books – one by one, they vanish from the island, and from the memories of everyone who lives there. Well, almost everyone: there are some for whom the memories remain, and if they’re caught out with a memory they’re not supposed to have, they are disappeared by the Memory Police. Read my full review of The Memory Police here.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
We Were Liars is the story of the wealthy, seemingly-perfect Sinclair family. And I mean “wealthy”, as in 1%-every-summer-they-gather-for-a-holiday-on-their-private-island-like-that’s-normal wealthy. They’re living the dream, or they would be if the narrator Cadence could remember what happened to her last time she was there. She suffers severe migraines and some kind of trauma-induced amnesia; she is completely unable to remember the circumstances leading up to a terrible injury. Her mother refuses to tell her what happened, and packs her off to Europe, but when Cadence returns to the island she begins to piece her memories back together. Read my full review of We Were Liars here.
The Invisible Husband Of Frick Island by Colleen Oakley
Something strange is going on on Frick Island. Piper’s husband was tragically killed in a boating accident, but she has carried on as though he’s still alive – and her whole town has played along. She cooks him breakfast, takes walks with him, keeps their standing Friday night dinner date. It’s the dream scenario for a young and ambitious journalist, the stuff thinkpieces are made of. What collective delusion has this whole island talking to a man who no longer exists? The Invisible Husband Of Frick Island has everything: eccentric small-town cast, tragic love story, and an outsider who is about to up-end it all.