"She could feel herself sinking. She was so thirsty. Everything ached. She was sitting crossed-legged on the ground. A blood trail was making it way toward her through the dust. She tried to breathe. Breathing hurt. Her ribs hurt. The air was thick."
Wow! This one blasted me out of my seat. It is one of the most suspenseful, unrelentingly terrifying reads I’ve experienced in some time. I found myself between gasping and holding my breath as the characters and action raced from page to page. I thought Adrian McKinty’s The Chain from last year was such an originally unexpected tale, and it is, but now I have to say The Island surpasses that. One would think that McKinty had a box labeled, “Bizarre Hair-Raisers,” but you might be surprised that the idea for The Island is rooted in the author’s own experience, or as he puts it, “a sort of Deliverance moment” on a remote Australian island. However, there is a tragic twist of the Baxter family outing, a "Sliding Doors" moment of what Adrian McKinty’s might have been.
It has been one year since twenty-four year old Heather Baxter left the small Northwestern community where she grew up to marry Tom, a widowed forty-something orthopedic surgeon from Seattle. They, along with his two children, have come to Australia for a vacation. Well, Tom is there for a medical convention as the keynote speaker and his family is there for fun, or so Heather hopes. But, it’s hard to impress and keep a teenager and an twelve-year-old interested for long, especially since they are far from Heather’s biggest fans. The first part of the trip isn’t too bad, with visits to Sydney and Uluru, but now they are in Melbourne, site of the medical convention, and checked into a house at the beach. The kids are bored and in full moping mode. And, truth be told, Heather was hoping for the hotel, where room service and restaurants were handy.
While taking a drive outside of the city, down the Mornington Peninsula to see if they can spot any native Australian wildlife, Tom gets fed up with the kids complaining about the failure to see anything. So, when they stop at a roadside stand for lunch and two men, Matt and Jacko, from a private island suggest they take their ferry over to the island if they want to see koalas and lots of other wildlife, it does sound appealing. Olivia and Owen are finally excited and are adamant that their father must take them to Dutch Island. Tom gives in and agrees to go. Another couple, Hans and Petra, hears their conversation with the two men and want to join the excursion. So, after negotiating a rather steep price for the trip, both cars load up onto the ferry in high hopes of some unspoiled Australian habitat and the animals dwelling there.
Matt cautions the visitors not to go far, not to go anywhere close to the farm in the middle of the island, and to be back in forty-five minutes to catch the ferry back across the bay As the families drove off in opposite directions to explore, I had the same urge as I do watching one of those scenes in a horror movie where the person decides to go down the stairs to the dark, scary basement to check out creepy noises. I wanted to shout, “Don’t go there! Turn around and go back to safety.” The feeling I got in the pit of my stomach was the dread of an ominous outcome. It turns out that feeling was well justified. There’s a good reason this island is not open to visitors, and you might be hearing strains of dueling banjos as you learn why.
Disappointment is again the fare of the day when there are no animals to see as the family drives around the island. Realizing that it’s time to get back to the ferry, Tom turns around and speeds up the Porsche SUV so they won’t be late, and that’s when the accident happens that will lead them into a living nightmare of survival of the fittest and most clever. As the afternoon fades, the O’Neill clan is out to hunt the Baxters down, and the disadvantages the Seattle family face are many. No phone reception, no water, no knowledge of the island, deadly sharks in the waters, and no one knows where they are. And, when Heather and the children must separate from Tom, it’s nightmare upon nightmare for Heather, trying to keep the three of them alive while Olivia and Owen don’t trust her. There is one advantage Heather and the kids have, and that is the place where Heather grew up was an isolated island in Puget Sound, so she does have some survival skills. Heather proves herself quite impressive in taking charge. However, the odds are not good, with the family clan consisting of about twenty headed by the very scary Ma (take Annie Wilkes from Misery and multiply 20 times), and it is their island they live on every day, in a house with water and food and weapons. Oh, and vehicles. The O’Neills have those and the Baxters no longer do.
The chase is on, and a savage chase it is. My description of the story ends here, as readers need to discover the rest of this story as it terrifyingly unfolds for themselves. However, the brilliantly developed characters deserve a mention. Adrian McKinty strips the soul bare in all the characters. It is absolutely all left on the ground. As in The Chain, who you are when it is all on the line is who you are. Of course, survival on an island inhabited by barbaric, murderous, crazy people would tend to reveal what those trying to survive are made of. Secrets and masks are the first casualties of the hunt. Heather has never seemed to be anything particularly special or had loads of ambition, although through her memories we see glimpses of dreams. She isn’t the person who would be voted “most likely to survive a manhunt on an isolated island,” and, yet, she rises to the occasion with clear, logical thinking and surprising physical grit. Whether she can hold on and protect the kids is always in danger, so readers might be afraid to like her too much, but she is the most likeable. Tom, her doctor husband, is a little less admirable, but he too will be worn down to what matters most to him. The kids probably make the biggest transition, as their spoiled and bitter natures must change if they are to survive. They are not the best of companions to have in a contest of survival. We know nothing about Hans and Petra going in, but we learn much about their relationship and their strengths as the story plays out. The bad bunch, the family clan members, are detestable, but, damn, McKinty does make them uniquely so. The reader will keep hoping that one of them isn’t as bad as the rest, and, well, you’ll just have to see if that hope is granted fulfillment or dashed into the rocks. The overall point here is that Adrian McKinty is kick-ass at character development.
The Island is the quintessential thriller with more suspense and shock and intensity than you can imagine right now. Don’t be surprised if you feel the heat of the Australian summer sun beating on your neck, find yourself thirsting uncontrollably for a drink of water, or suddenly hear your stomach growl in anticipation of a meal. Adrian McKinty’s writing will immerse the reader into a sensory experience of empathy, with the fear being a palatable taste in the mouth. This story is a gauntlet of terror, and the readers can only hope there is an end and survival at that end. I am looking forward to the Hulu streaming program of The Island, and as usual, I’m so glad I read the book first. This story deserves the experience of readers’ imaginations before it is imagined for them.