Book Reviews

Satin Island – Tom McCarthy

“1.1 Turin is where the famous shroud is from, the one showing Christ’s body spin after crucifixion: hands folded over genitals, eyes closed, head crowned with thorns. The image isn’t really visible on the bare linen. It only emerged in the late nineteenth century, when some amateur photographer looked at the negative of a shot he’d taken of the thing, and saw the figure – pale and faded, but there nonetheless. Only in the negative: the negative became a positive, which means that the shroud itself was, in effect, a negative already. A few decades later, when the shroud was radiocarbon dated, it turned out to come from no later than the mid-thirteenth century; but this didn’t trouble the believers. Things like that never do.”

McCarthy isn’t an author I’d ever heard of, but this novel was shortlisted for the ManBooker prize this year. It didn’t win but it was really the only one on the list that stood out to me. It’s an interesting and experimental way of writing that McCarthy uses; 14 chapters broken down into short parts. It makes it really easy to read but not necessary all linking up to one another. I really enjoyed his writing style and the ambitious nature of what he was trying to capture. 

The story follows our protagonist U, a corporate anthropologist, as he is set the task of writing The Great Report to sum up our culture. Throughout he procrastinates with visits to his lover’s home, and researching a parachutists death and an oil spill. He seems to think that all of these things will link up to decode what our culture really is and throughout we get little insights into how it possibly could all link up. But then things all appear to change for U and he’s forced to reconsider what he thought to be true. The whole novel really made me think about how I view culture. It can be said to be related to the physical objects that we’ve got to show for what we’ve created, yet it also can be shown through our patterns of behaviour. All of the way through this novel, U battles with his thoughts surrounding the two. 

I don’t think we ever come to a definite conclusion at the end of the novel. U’s procrastinating takes a turn when he wants to really understand what happened to his lover, Madison, when she visited Turin’s international airport. He seems more concerned about delving into her past than focussing on his paper, and it is even with her that this idea of Satin Island appears. He’s laid in bed with her after intercourse and he falls asleep, beginning to dream about flying in a helicopter around an island, vibrant in colour and life, and this inspires him in what he wants to do for his report. Yet he never wants to work on it. Or he doesn’t have the drive. 

McCarthy’s writing style seems to leave room for reader interpretation. I don’t think that we’re meant to know all of the answers, which I understand might be frustrating to some readers. It’s such an interesting concept, what defines our culture, that it does requires room for discussion. I personally love the essay style, with these unanswered questions. I think this was what made it so enjoyable. The novel is written in this essay style, with a lot of interesting facts given not only about the surroundings and the characters, but about some things that don’t really seem important, for example the opening of the novel talking about the shroud. The essay style also helps with the actual language used throughout. The number of times I had to use my kindle’s dictionary function whilst reading this was incredible to me because not only was I reading this, very enjoyable, novel, but I was being introduced to a whole host of new words and new ideas about culture and people and the way I view things around me. 

All of the characters are really well formulated; from the people that he works with to his friend who runs the museum. I seemed to get something from every character regarding our culture, whether it be to do with how we deal with death, stressful situations, and romance. However these are not the real focus in the novel. The real focus is U’s internal struggle with his own definition of culture, but all of these additions help us develop our own image of it. I can’t think of any characters I disliked, but then again I can’t think of any that stood out to me more than others. All of the characters have a reason for existing which links them to U, and this link is mostly just as a form of distraction from the actual task at hand. Yet this is interesting in itself for this can be seen as making U both the protagonist and antagonist in his own story. He will be the cause of his own inevitable downfall; as he’s unable to focus and therefore produce what is needed of him. 

Overall I understand completely why this book was shortlisted for the ManBooker prize. It’s not only engaging and funny, but deeply intuitive and forces readers to consider their own interpretation of culture whilst seemingly attempting to manipulate it. The writing style is easy to read, with short numbered sections within chapters that mean it can be put down and picked up again when necessary; not that you should want to put it down. 

Total pages – 192

Total read time – 2 hours 55

Rating /10 – 7

Recommend – Yes 

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