Islanders by Cathy Thomas: Small world

Cover image for Islanders by Claire Thomas Although I’ve long since been converted to reading short story collections, I still prefer the linked variety. There’s something appealing about spotting characters from previous pieces, particularly in a small town setting, which is what attracted me to Cathy Thomas’ Islanders set on Guernsey. Comprising twelve stories set over two decades beginning in 2000, it follows a group of young people for whom ‘the rock’ is both home and a place to escape.

She’d lived in Leeds, Manchester, London. Places Goody had only seen on the news  

The collection opens with Good for a Laugh, setting the scene as a group of friends play with fire, plundering a local drug dealer’s stash for something to take to a party from which Paul scoops up his drunken sister Josie, her first time at what is a regular event for him. Daily Specials sees fifteen-year-old Annie ready to lose her virginity if it means she’ll be welcomed back by her partying friends who’ve set Paul up for the job but the evening ends with a different sort of drama. In A Word for It a snide remark from her physiotherapy nurse suggesting her daughter’s promiscuity leads a single mother to take a surprising decision. Fast forward almost a decade to Liberation Day when Eva, briefly home visiting family, catches the eye of Goody, the island’s lothario, determined to seduce her and deeply unsettled when she’s not interested. Mein Herr sees a closeted headteacher interrupting two male pupils having sex, brought up short by the feelings he’d suffocated on this island where homosexuality was illegal until not so very long ago. Real Nice brings those boys back together, one now a drug dealer the other a well-heeled client, both unwilling to admit their past. The Lure, the collection’s final story, brings Paul and Josie back together again, sharing lunch in London – Paul still living on Guernsey, Josie now a solicitor for whom the island is far too parochial. When it becomes apparent she’s been less than honest about her roots, Paul’s upset makes her think twice.

It was hard to stop being the person you were at school when everyone you went to school with still lived in the same place  

Those seven are my favourites from a collection which hangs together beautifully as characters cross each other’s paths over the decades; some friends, others trying to turn their backs on a difficult past, all knowing far more about each other than is often comfortable. Thomas has a sharp eye for character backed up by a pithy wit and a compassionate understanding. Guernsey has all the familiar features of small town life exaggerated by its island status. Everyone knows everybody else’s business, gossip is rife, boredom a feature of life with escapes made into partying and loyalties are fierce. The ‘rock’ will always be home for many but for others a taste of the outside world leads to a more permanent departure. I enjoyed Thomas’ stories very much. Astute, shrewd, funny and dark, Islanders is a collection that will stay with me for some time.

Virago Books: London 9780349016283 224 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley) 

14 thoughts on “Islanders by Cathy Thomas: Small world”

  1. Oh, this does sound enticing! I only really like linked short stories apart from enjoying a few particular people’s stories (Elizabeth Taylor and Dorothy Whipple, mainly). And I do like a story about a small town or island.

  2. This sounds such a great read! Linked short stories can be such an effective way to explore a community and the different characters, I can see why Guernsey would work so well here.

  3. Linked short stories always have that extra appeal. It’s interesting how small town it in this case island setting can be both welcoming and suffocating. One likes the sense of closeness and support, yet it comes at the cost of privacy or having to conform to social expectation.

  4. Oh, this sounds great, Susan, and such a beautiful cover too. Like you, I think there’s something very appealing about a collection of linked short stories, especially if the setting is part of the theme. Have you read Jan Carson’s The Last Resort, a collection that revolves around the various residents/guests at a caravan park? I listened to an abridged version on Radio 4 last year and was really impressed.

  5. There is something so fascinating about linked short stories – even when the connections are obvious, I feel rather clever for spotting them!

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