Island in the Clouds by Susan M. Toy, IslandCat Editions (2012), 183 pp.
Reviewed by Jane Christmas
There’s a body face down in a swimming pool and a motley cast of expats who may or may not have anything to do with it. Tongues start wagging, the rumour mill shudders into action, and in no time an island population that normally measures excitement by the number of tourists piling off the cruise ships begins to get edgy.
Island in the Clouds, Susan Toy’s first novel, is set on the tiny Caribbean island of Bequia, where the author lives part of the year. Lucky gal. She has honed a keen understanding of the distinctive personality of islanders, and captures well the tension that arises when foreigners who gravitate to such islands for the slower pace of life become impatient with that very characteristic. Especially when there’s a murder to solve.
Toy plays up that well-known islander trait that no one is what he or she seems or pretends to be. You are never quite sure who is telling the truth. Even the amiable narrator, Geoff (not his real name as it turns out) is suspect. He has a sweet life, and a lovely partner, but when he confides to the reader that he was the scapegoat in a Bre-X type scam back in Canada, we are left wondering what else lurks in his background. As the novel unfolds we discover that everyone seems to have something stashed away—a past they would rather not discuss, a gun, a lifestyle. Between the palm fronds, island life is never as simple or as idyllic as it appears.
It’s a breezy mystery, and Toy has a gift of story-telling and pace, but her novel gets weighed down by a teacher-like insistence that we learn about Bequia. The six-page prologue, for example, does nothing to set up the story, and has all the warmth of a Lonely Planet listing. Facts about the island are sprinkled throughout the text, and are often not integrated into the story as seamlessly as they could be, interrupting the story’s flow.
Still, this is Toy’s first attempt. She has created distinctive, often endearing characters, as well as a plot with enough dips and detours to keep the reader engaged. You can almost imagine this as the first in a series of Geoff-led escapades. With tighter writing and the confidence to know that her readers don’t need everything explained to them, Toy has the potential to succeed. May she do so!
Jane Christmas is the author of The Pelee Project, What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim, and Incontinent on the Continent. Her next book, And Then There Were Nuns, will be published in September.