Island of the World
"Best book ever." Those were the words my friend's 18-year-old son said to me in reference to Michael O'Brien's novel, Island of the World.
Back in the summer I asked my friend what she was reading and as we were discussing books her son walked up and said, "You need to read Island of the World. Best book ever." I mentally filed away the title, and a few days later I thought to put it on my wish list at PaperBackSwap. Then I forgot about it. However, every once in a while those three words, "best book ever," would enter my mind and I'd wonder if I should just buy the book and see if it really was that good. My friend's son is an intelligent and discerning reader, and I trusted his judgement. On the other hand, those extremely high words of praise had to be hyperbole.
He was right.
A week ago I bought the book and began reading it. I could not put it down. I wanted to know how the novel ended, yet I did not want it to end. This is a book I will buy for my children and recommend to friends. I could not do justice to this book if I tried to write a summary, but I think the publisher (Ignatius Press) did a good job of capturing the essence of the story on the dust jacket, so here it is:
"Island of the World is the story of a child born into the turbulent world of the Balkans in 1933, and traces his life into the third millennium. The central character is Josip Lasta, the son of a school teacher in a remote village high in the mountains of the Croatian interior. As the novel begins, World War II is underway and the entire region of what became Yugoslavia is torn by conflicting factions: German and Italian occupying armies, and the rebel forces that resist them--the fascist Ustashe, Serb nationalist Chetniks, and Communist Partisans. As events gather momentum, hell breaks loose, and the young and the innocent are caught in the path of great evils; their only remaining strength is their religious faith and their families.
"For more than a century, the confused and highly inflammatory history of former Yugoslavia has been the subject of numerous books, many of them rife with revisionist history and propaganda. The peoples of the Balkans live on the border of three worlds: the Islamic, the orthodox Slavic East, and Catholic Europe, and as such they stand in the path of major world conflicts that are not only geo-political but fundamentally spiritual. This novel cuts a core question: how does a person retain his identity, indeed his humanity, in absolutely dehumanizing situations?
"In the life of the central character, the author demonstrates that to retain one's humanity can demand suffering and sacrifice, heroism, and even holiness. When he is twelve years old, his entire world is destroyed, and so begins a lifelong odyssey to find again the faith which the blows of evil have shattered. The plot takes the reader through Josip's youth, his young manhood, life under the Communist regime, hope and loss and unexpected blessings, the growth of his creative powers as a poet, and the ultimate test of his life. There are journeys that show him new worlds and numerous people who affect his life, who are in turn changed by him. Ultimately this novel is about the ways Divine Providence can bring forth good fruit from the lives of those who have suffered radical injustice. It is about the crucifixion of a soul--and about resurrection."
Best book ever.