With The Islanders Fiona Campbell had the clever idea of borrowing her setting from Thomas Hardy. All the place names are from Hardy’s fictional Wessex, which of course have counterparts in real English geography well-catalogued for over a century. The school is called Weatherbury Hall after a village with strong associations with Hardy – the real name is the unprepossessing Puddletown. Our principal characters are four sixth-form students preparing for A-level exams for university entrance. There’s no exact American equivalent, but something like AP courses. The time is autumn 1989 to summer 1990, when Mrs. Thatcher was prime minister and when mobile phones were uncommon. Our central character is a new sixth-form girl, Beth Atkinson, who finds herself the centre of attention amongst the senior boys. The main rivals for Beth’s affections are Edward Markham the son of a cabinet minister who lives on a country estate, and Zack Smythe, a sophisticated Londoner who has already run up an impressive number of conquests, including Edward’s sister Bonnie. But Beth’s most faithful follower is Milo West, the son of the school groundskeeper. Milo’s mother died of cancer and his father has just killed himself, providing Milo with a very modest inheritance, a cottage next to the school bounds. Thanks to Beth, who has the means to decline a scholarship, Milo also enjoys a sixth-form year.
The idea of the son of a groundskeeper at an expensive school brought to mind Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players but fortunately the flavour of The Islanders differs toto caelo. Far from being devoured alive with class envy – like too many characters in school stories – Milo is a model of caring and good sense. There are lots of allusions to ’80s culture: one that amused me as a hockey follower was discussion of pop music. Milo enquires about the song Come On Eileen and is informed – ‘in the sticks, it’s brand new … but in London it’s an oldie.’ It’s still played at every University of Iowa field hockey match three decades later. Unfortunately, Weatherbury’s hockey teams get little attention, but in addition to being captain of the rugby team, Milo also plays goalkeeper for the hockey team. The position is appropriate given Milo’s character and background: not glamorous but the last line of defence against a stronger attacking side. His first ‘save’ is the discovery of Beth’s backstory, involving the identity of her parents, which she is eager to keep from everyone at school
The minor characters, including Tom the headmaster and Beth’s roommate Livvy, are well-drawn in detail. There are villains in the novel, but no monsters, unlike the bullies that populate too many bad school stories (bad doing duty for both school and story). The title seems a trifle misleading though. The students refer to their school as the “Island” because they feel remote from the rest of the world. (In fact till I checked my Hardy geography, I thought they might be on the IOW or Portland bill.) Actually, Beth regularly travels by cab or bus to Melchester (i.e. Salisbury), which is her usual home. There are also parties in London and on the beach in Cornwall. But Campbell did well to catch the insular life of a boarding school, and the feeling of inhabiting a private world where close personal relationships, school sports, theatricals, and exams, are the main events in the entire universe. I think that is one of the reasons that for some of us our school days remain so deeply in our memories, however many years have passed since we left. I can imagine a sequel for The Islanders, but it would be a different book. (I greeted Beth’s choice of university with both shock and applause.) The Islanders is not quite in the class with Patrick Gale’s Friendly Fire – my choice for the best of contemporary school stories – but it is very moving and engaging.