First a disclaimer: I am the editor of this book, in its 35th Anniversary Edition from Islander Press. That might make me seem a biased reviewer. On the other hand, the reason I’m the editor is that I’m one of the book’s biggest fans.
For many of us fans—and we are legion, dating back to the 1970s and ’80s, when this book sold over a million copies—Phoenix Island is something of a guilty pleasure. Those who love literary fiction may be embarrassed by the book’s occasional steamy sex scenes and other trappings of genre fiction. Yet, in this book, we also find the conventions of genre fiction subverted and defied. How many genre novels, for example, feature as protagonist a 60-year-old Hungarian-born nuclear physicist with an amputated foot?
I am not one of those who read Phoenix Island in its heyday. I first picked it up only after moving to the San Juan Islands, where its author, Charlotte Paul, lived and wrote and found models for this book’s locales. (I live on San Juan Island, and I can see Lopez Island, Charlotte’s home, from my front yard.) So, for me, the book’s chief attraction was at first local interest.
At the beginning of the book, it seemed a competent enough adventure, though definitely supermarket fare. But as I got in deeper, I grew more and more impressed by what the author apparently intended, and by what she accomplished. It was billed as a romance and an adventure story, but it was much more than that. At its root, it was a utopian novel, and a good one at that. Beneath the genre coating, Charlotte was laying out a critique of our society, along with basic principles for a better one. (I’ve written more about this in an afterword for the 35th Anniversary Edition.)
But perhaps what attracted me most was the author’s humanity. She refused to paint her characters in black-and-white. Each of them has basic flaws, yet each learns to mitigate or transcend them. Even the “bad guy”—some of whose actions are wholly repugnant—is more or less redeemed and integrated back into the community by story’s end. It is not a person or persons who are defeated in this novel, but the fears and indulgences and separateness that would keep the Phoenix Islanders from surviving.
The author’s humanity comes out in other ways as well. I am continually amazed by her shaping of Book 1, which comprises the entire first quarter of this lengthy novel and which, ignoring flashbacks, takes place within a single day. She begins with the universal—a lecture on geology and ancient mythology, of all things. It progresses through the regional—an account of a tsunami (tidal wave) as it wends its destructive way across the Pacific. Yet it culminates in the intensely personal—an emotionally scarred young woman finally overcoming her fears of close contact to fall asleep in her boyfriend’s arms. The effect is almost devastating.
There are many who will declare that Phoenix Island is among the best books they have ever read. There are others who despise it completely. But if you read this surprising, daring, and monumental work from beginning to end, I promise you one thing: It will stay with you forever.