Robinson by Muriel Spark

The start of the year has seen quite an online flurry about the fact that 2018 is the centenary of the birth of the great Scottish author Muriel Spark. There’s a big exhibition at the National Library of Scotland (which I really wish I could get to) and lovely blogger HeavenAli is holding a readalong of Spark’s work throughout the year. The structure of this is really laid-back and so somehow I’ve managed to actually get involved in a reading challenge and read a Spark book! During the first three months the focus is on Spark’s early novels, and as I had read her debut effort, “The Comforters, I went for the second one, “Robinson”. And what a fascinating and thought-provoking read it turned out to be.

The title is, of course, a reference to Daniel Defoe’s great novel “Robinson Crusoe”; but this book is something very different to that classic work. Spark’s novel is narrated by one January Marlow, a young widow who’s been stranded on the island of Robinson after a plane crash. Marooned with her are Tom Wells, a rather slippery character, and Johnnie Waterford, an entertaining young Dutchman with a wonderfully eccentric way of speaking; these three are the only survivors of the crash, and they’re rescued by the island’s owner and inhabitant, Robinson himself.

As the three recover from their injuries, they discover that the set-up on the island is a little odd. Robinson is a bit of a strange one, as despite being quite well off he’s chosen to isolate himself with only a young boy, Miguel, as company. Apart from the occasional visit by pomegranate sellers, no-one visits Robinson (either the person or the island) and so he’s making a considerable personal sacrifice by tolerating and accommodating the sometimes fractious visitors…

I had issues with the cover of my edition – and ended up having to deploy strategic post-its. I don’t know which of the characters this was mean to be, but it certainly didn’t seem like *any* of them to me…

Skilfully, Spark gradually reveals her characters during the narrative and all is not, of course, straightforward. Wells, a bit of a wide boy who runs a dodgy magazine and sells dubious lucky charms, shirks the chores and feigns illness; Johnnie turns out to be related to Robinson and there may be more to him than meets the eye, too. As for January, her rather eccentric life story gradually reveals itself, while she sees parallels between her companions and her family members. An added element in the story is religious conflict; Robinson is violently against all forms of false faith and cant, whereas January is a recent convert to Catholicism and happy to teach Miguel how to do his rosary.

But tensions come to a head and murder happens; blood is strewn over the island again, Robinson cannot be found, and the remaining survivors must deal with the suspicion between them until the pomegranate boats arrive to rescue them. Add in blackmail, guns, threats and hidden passages and you have quite a scintillating mix!

I’ve read a lot of Spark pre-blog, but somehow “Robinson” slipped under my radar at the time; which is a shame, but at least I’ve got to read it now. It’s a curious mix at times, with funny and entertaining elements set against darker, more unsettling plot strands. Certainly, although it’s not sensible to conflate author and character, I can’t help seeing Spark reflected in January, with both having a son, both being authors and both having recently converted to the Catholic faith. That latter element is strong in the book, with the interesting juxtaposition of Robinson’s viewpoint, January’s simple faith and her scarily obsessive brother-in-law’s rather weird fixation on the more extreme aspects of the religion.

Spark and son

There were plenty of twists and turns, too, and the story was extremely gripping (although I confess I *did* suss one particularly large plot twist well before the end of the book). It’s a work that really is immensely readable and yet very thought-provoking as well. There is plenty of wry and dry humour, and although Spark is channelling Defoe, Robinson is no Crusoe and Miguel is no Friday. The setting, however, is somewhat idyllic, even if the events are not, and it’s fascinating to see January’s recording of events at the time (in the journal she keeps) and her thoughts on the island looking back on her experience (as we know all along that she will survive and return to civilization). Spark’s prose, too, is just wonderful, evoking the setting and the characters beautifully, and really bringing the island of Robinson to life. I was particularly taken with Johnnie (whose true nature is never completely revealed) and his wonderfully dreadful use of the English language had me chuckling away all though the book.

So – “Robinson” was a real winner for me, and proof (if I needed it) of what an inventive, original and just classy author Muriel Spark was. There’s suspense, meditations on the human spirit, adventure, a marvellously evoked setting, humour and a wonderful ping-pong playing cat – what more do you need of a book? 🙂

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