Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book review: Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, United Kingdom

Cover of Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession
by Gavin Francis.

Gavin Francis is a Scottish doctor, author, and traveler who has worked in emergency medicine, family medicine, and as the resident doctor for the Antarctic survey, which resulted in a previous book. His wanderlust and way with words have been favorably compared to the late Bruce Chatwin.

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession is a distillation of his far-flung travel experiences in remote islands and the contradicting desires for isolation and contact. John Donne, the great British poet and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in 1624 wrote the poem “No man is an island,” which still resonates today. In the current Covid pandemic, the need for connection with others is greater than ever. Donne, of course, was familiar with the plague epidemics in his own era.

Gavin’s need for isolation and contemplation on islands at times conflicts with his need for human contact. His travels take him from remote islands off the coast of Scotland such as Unst, Lewis, and Shetland with remarkable wildlife, to the Andamman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, which functioned in the past as a penal colony under British rule. Other famous islands that have served as prisons include Alcatraz in the Pacific Ocean, Bass Rock off the east coast of Scotland, and the now infamous Robben Island, home to Nelson Mandela for some eighteen years.

We are reminded of Robinson Crusoe, perhaps the most famous tale of island survival in isolation written by Daniel Defoe in 1719 and based on the seafarer Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an island in the South Pacific. We learn about Rousseau, the Swiss political philosopher (“man is born free but everywhere lives in chains’’), who was happiest taking walks in solitude on the lake island St. Peter in Switzerland, allowing him to meditate on his life.

The author samples monastic life in northeastern Greece near Mount Athos, which is home to several monasteries and only accessible by boat. He lives the ascetic life amongst the Eastern Orthodox monks of Mount Athos and meets interesting characters looking for an alternative to the hustle and bustle of large cities.

Experiences in the southern hemisphere, notably in the Falkland Islands off Argentina, South Georgia, and Chiloe (an island off the coast of Chile) where Darwin spent six months en route to the Galapagos Islands in 1834–5 are discussed, as well as travels in the Arctic, including the Lofoten Islands off Norway and Faroe Islands off Iceland. Fårö, a Swedish island, was home to the great film and theater director Ingmar Bergman, whose often bleak films on the human condition may have been influenced by the climate and remoteness of these islands.

This book offers the author’s meditations on travel in remote parts of the globe. It is peppered with pithy quotes and philosophical, historical, and literary references, a reflection of the author’s wide reading. The text is beautifully illustrated with old maps and littered with references to authors, travelers, and others who have ventured into these obscure parts of the planet. The need for isolation, space, and contemplation, as well as a yearning for connection, are all important aspects of being human. The author quotes the psychoanalyst Derek Winnicott: “Personal isolation is a search for one’s identity.” Perhaps this was part of the author’s quest.

Reading this book was spiritual, uplifting, and a vicarious adventure.

Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession
Gavin Francis, Canongate Books, 2020
ISBN 9781786898180

ARPAN K. BANERJEEMBBS (LOND), FRCP, FRCR, FBIR, qualified in medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham from 1995–2019. He served on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology from 2012–2017. He is Treasurer of ISHRAD and adviser to Radiopaedia. He is the author/co-author of numerous papers and articles on a variety of clinical medical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).

Winter 2021  



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