So wrote Marvin Olasky in World magazine at the end of 2007.
The novel? Michael O'Brien's Island of the World, published earlier that year by Ignatius Press. Olasky recently, in the July 4, 2009, edition of World magazine, listed O'Brien's novel as one of the Top 40 books he's read and reviewed since 2007. It is particularly interesting that—as far as I can tell (please correct me if I'm mistaken)—O'Brien is the only Catholic on the list and Island of the World is the only novel on the list. Most of the other books (all non-fiction, it appears) are works of history, theology, or cultural criticism.
Anyhow, back to Olasky's 2007 review, which is, as they say, short but sweet:
The book is long but hard to put down. It includes brilliant scenes of the love of a father for his son, of terror that would make a boy want to die, of a wondrous love at first sight, of terror that would make a man want to die, of a prison island where only dreams of vengeance keep a man from dying, of despair that outweighs vengeance, and of a tipping point where grace outweighs despair.
In the end, the book is about the worst and the best. Flashbacks of the hell Josip has seen keep him from even entering a church. He yearns to leave this world and finds God sending him to a new world. Crucifixion, through God's providence, leads to resurrection, and in turn the opportunity to save other lives. Such a summary of Island of the World sounds theoretical and dry: O'Brien, though, like the best novelists, turns words into flesh.
From Ignatius Insight:
The Opening Pages of Island of the World: A
Novel | Michael O'Brien | Ignatius Insight
I am old. Time has revealed itself and shed its pretense of eternity; though it is of course contained within eternity. I clean the hallways, take out the garbage, try not to be irritated by the roar of ten million automobiles, and by the jackhammers that are breaking up the street outside the front door, only to lay down another stratum of tar for future generations to dig up. This is a big city, and though I have lived within it for close to forty years, I still do not understand how it survives.
Its people display an astonishing variety of colors, languages, temperaments, and ratios of good and evil (as is everywhere), but they do not seem unhappy. Neither do they contemplate the body of the world. Its foundations are below them, they believe, in the concrete and tar, the pipes and wires. During my time among them I have noticed this delusion particularly. Seldom have I encountered the few who are awake, who cast their gaze to the real foundations, which, as human beings should know, are above.
Soon I will leave this place and return to my first home. Perhaps I will find myself waiting for me there. Is this a candid admission that I have failed to know myself? Yes, of course it is. What else is there to learn save that we know almost nothing? I am not referring to biographical data, but to something more important, the character of presence that appears to be displacement, as a stone or tree displaces air as it fills space. That I am a displaced person is true enough. Yet this is true of all men, each in his way. What is to be learned of me now rests in memory; the interior, a country that contains ranges of mountains and their shadowed vales, the beds of alpine glens, the crevasse and its fall from which there is no return, and the summit from which one does not wish to return.
Why do we in memory seek ourselves, when it is ourselves who shape the memories? The truth is, we shape and are shaped. In the beginning we unwittingly find our forms, as the first steps of a child. Later we take our longer strides, with secret timorousness, preferring a crowd of companions. Then, in time, we go farther out into the world with blind and knowing willfulness, with good intent and ill, alone inside ourselves. For in solitude the blur of safe indistinction becomes sharp and dangerous identity. Then, when identity has sealed its form, we seek union with the other islands, within the island of the world.
Of my life I can only resort to pictures. It began, as most lives do, with warmth and milk and love.