Review: Island of the World

“You will not want to put this book down until you finish it, and you will continue to live in it even after you close it’s covers. This story will change you. And make you a wiser better person- is there any greater success for a book thank that? —Peter kreft

Not very often does a book come into my life that utterly consumes my mind and heart. I have heard people say they were so consumed with Kristen Lavransdatter that they found themselves actually praying for the characters, but this sounded pretty silly and far-fetched to me.

Until I met Josip Lasta.

Michael O’Brien is an author that I always associated with Catholic-apocolytic books. (This is a pretty inaccurate view.) But when this novel Island of the World kept popping up as a must-read in several online Catholic book circles, I added it to my to-read list.

We meet Josip as a small boy, in the beautiful hills of Croatia/Serbia (the lines are drawn and redrawn thoguhtout the book). It is just before a Communist takeover of the country, and the people live a beautiful, simple life. And shortly, hell breaks loose, and deep questions haunt Josip’s life.

“Love is the soul of the world, though its body bleeds, and we must learn to bleed with it. Love is also the seed and milk and the fruit of the world, though we can partake of it in greed or reverence. We are born, we eat, and learn, and die. We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem left behind. I was here, each of these declare. I was here.”

What is it all for? Why are we put on this earth, especially when life feels, or is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”? (to quote Thomas Hobbes.) We want to leave our mark, to say that we lived and we count for something. But how do we make life worth it, even when stripped of everything that we think will bring us joy and happiness?

Odysseus By Valdavia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Some have compared Lasta’s journey to Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom or Odysseus’ Odyssey, and this its accurate in a sense. We follow Josip over his entire life, and in the end it is a book about returning home.

Never before have I felt such heartache over a book (heartache is an understament) and never have I continued to think about a book every day since finishing it. It is certainly one of the most life-changing books I have ever read.

For anyone who enjoys historical fiction, loves to contemplate life and its meaning, and how we maintain our identity and faith in a world of islands, of solitude and suffering, I urge you to try Island of the World.

Here is the summary From Ignatius Press that explains succinctly the plot, especially the political/social dimensions of the region.

Island of the World is the story of a child born in 1933 into the turbulent world of the Balkans and tracing his life into the third millennium. The central character is Josip Lasta, the son of an impoverished school teacher in a remote village high in the mountains of the Bosnian interior. As the novel begins, World War II is underway and the entire region of 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 to the 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 this will 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. Ultimately this novel is about the crucifixion of a soul—and resurrection.

Disclaimer: This is not an easy read. The descriptions of war and suffering can be almost graphic at times, and some may find the historical/political underpinnings boring or too much to follow. Know thyself and proceed with caution!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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