Intricately plotted, observant and empathetic
What a treat this book turned out to be, even if it turned out to be rather different from what I’d expected. I thought I’d be reading a novel about a woman finding herself on a Greek island and while to some extent this is true, Jigsaw Island packs far more into its relatively short page count.
The story is divided into two parts and the first is largely a meandering account of Annie Buchanan’s past, particularly focusing on her troubled time in London. The first-person narrative style is chatty and self-deprecating and has almost a stream-of-consciousness feel to it. The young Annie escaped the rocky atmosphere at home at sixteen, leaving just a note when she takes the bus from Glasgow to London. It proves to be a life-changing time and while I don’t want to give too much away here, there is one scene which although not graphic in any sense which especially underlines the dangerous situation young runaways are in and how vulnerable they are to opportunistic predators.
Interspersed with her memories of the past are the chapters concerning her current problems. Now back in Scotland as a single mother living in a small community in Kilachlan, her teenage son, Jude has been targeted by racial abuse and not surprisingly has lashed out in retaliation. Their relationship is described so well, their closeness is undeniable and I loved the easy banter between them but it’s also clear that Annie struggles with knowing how best to help her son during this tricky transitional period in his life. She eventually decides to bring forward their planned holiday to stay with her brother on the Greek island of Symi, hoping Jude will benefit from Fraser’s male influence.
A vivid sense of place is rendered throughout Jigsaw Island; the descriptions of the squats Annie ends up in leave no doubt as to their pungent squalor but it’s the evocation of the Greek Islands which is particularly striking. The beautiful surroundings coupled with the warmth and support of the people she stays with are the balm she needs, however, this is a book which explores the complexities of identity and that’s as true for the islands of Symi and Leros as it is for the characters themselves. Tourists and refugees alike arrive in their droves and despite the stark differences in their circumstances, both groups leave their indelible impression on these ever-changing places. At one point in the story, Annie goes to visit the site of an old mental hospital on Leros which became infamous for the terrible treatment of the patients incarcerated there. As she ponders on this and on the occupation by the Nazis during World War Two she wonders why the island has such a powerful pull. She feels it too and with her complicated past – some of which she has revealed to very few people – she could be considered to be the human reflection of the island.
In the second part of the novel it gradually becomes evident that Annie can’t trust everybody and she will have to re-examine her past to protect what it is she loves the most. At this point the story becomes a psychological thriller and it transpires that even the most seemingly innocuous recollection from Annie’s past could hold more significance than either she or the reader realised. As this is only a relatively short book, this dramatic part of the plot is dealt with fairly quickly but I never felt it was rushed and was really impressed with the way the first and second sections are linked.
Jigsaw Island is intricately plotted, observant and empathetic novel that examines the complexities of people and places, recognising that individual experiences and encounters shape how we all view the world and those we share it with. With that in mind, I highly recommend reading the account at the end of the book which tells the real-life story of Alaa, a refugee Lynne McVernon met through Refugee Support in Devon who shared his experiences with her and became a friend. As Annie would agree, knowledge and compassion are equally important and perhaps through reading stories such as Alaa’s, the discussions around refugees will feature more of both. Moving, perceptive and thought-provoking, I thoroughly enjoyed the multi-layered Jigsaw Island and look forward to reading more by this author in the future.