The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack and illustrated by Katie Scott

‘Faced with the sky we imagine gods; faced with the ocean we imagine islands. Absence is terrifying, and so we fill the gaps in our knowledge with invented things. These bring us comfort, but they conflict, too, with our desire for certainty and understanding. And sometimes that desire gives us back the absences we sought to fill.’

In this book, delightfully illustrated by Katie Scott, Malachy Tallack writes about twenty-four islands which were once believed to be real. These islands no longer appear on maps. Some of them were the result of human error, some were the products of imagination, while others were deliberately invented.

Some of the names may be familiar. I’ve heard of Atlantis, Thule, Frisland, The Isles of the Blessed, and Hawaiki. But I don’t remember reading about most of the others. I was intrigued to read about Hufaidh in the Southern Iraq marshes. This is a space which is both real, and mythological. This area, where the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers meet was the ancestral home of the Ma‘dān (the ‘Marsh Arabs’) and was known to European visitors including the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who visited times during the 1950s, and the writer Gavin Maxwell who travelled there in 1956. It was from these marshes that Gavin Maxwell brought back the otter Mijbil, the subject of his book ‘Ring of Bright Water’. Sadly, most of the marshland has now been destroyed because of action taken by Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War.

‘Like many such islands, Hufaidh existed in a region bridged between life and death. It was part paradise and part hell, both of this world and of another.’

Atlantis may have been pure invention (thanks, Plato), but in this book Mr Tallack writes of other islands believed to have sunk. Sarah Ann Island in the Pacific (claimed by the USA for its guano deposits) is one such island.

I was amused to read that Bermeja, an island in the Gulf of Mexico, the subject of dispute between the USA and Mexico, was only proven not to exist in 2009. That’s one way to solve territorial disputes.

‘Today the era of new island discoveries is over, and the age of un-discovery is likewise coming to an end.’

I enjoyed reading about these islands, and I especially enjoyed Katie Scott’s marvellous illustrations. While it’s good that improvements in navigation have reduced the uncertainty about which islands exist and where, I liked how uncertainty provided fertile ground for the imagination of mystery.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith