Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2002, 444 p.

Hy Brasil cover

Hy Brasil is a fictional mid-Atlantic archipelago, its main island geologically active. Supposedly first discovered by St Brendan, its original inhabitants were so keen on keeping themselves unknown to the outside world that betraying its existence was a capital offence. It was later colonised by the British, and, despite gaining independence via a daring coup against the NATO base which enabled it to garner US and UN support, still uses pounds, shillings and pence as its monetary system. It still seems to be close enough to the UK though for one of its main communications links to be the Southampton ferry.

The novel is carried through the first person jottings of Sidony Redruth (engaged by a London publisher to produce a guidebook for the archipelago after misrepresenting herself in a writing competition) as a set of Notes for her projected book – working title Undiscovered Islands – and third person accounts featuring some of the islands’ inhabitants, most notably Jared Honeyman, amateur explorer of the wreck of a Spanish galleon, the Cortes.

Elphinstone manages to convey the archipelago’s odd mixture of apparent Britishness, names such as St Brandons, Ferdy’s Landing and Lyonsness, with some aspects of ex-colonial polities elsewhere, strong man government, illiberal policing, the sensitivities of the locals. There is a wonderful description of a volcanic eruption with lava rendered in the terms, “It’s rock, it’s liquid, and it’s fire. Three incompatible things made one.” Other felicitous writerly touches include, “like the smoke from a gigantic steamer that’s gone over the horizon along with the age it came from.” We also have one character observing, “‘Your family imbues you with guilt. That’s what families are for.’”

Elphinstone seems to be incapable of writing badly though here her strengths are perhaps not best served by a thriller style plot involving events just after the coup that ensured Hy Brasil’s independence and which resonate down to the present day. The characters and their relationships and Elphinstone’s landscape descriptions are very well rendered though.

Pedant’s corner:- Millais’ (Millais’s, x2,) “apart from….apart from” (twice in two lines, only six words separating them,) “a bowel of fruit” (a bowl, I would think,) desdendents (descendants, x2,) halbards (halberds,.) “‘Dorrado? you don’t think anything’s happened in Dorrado?’” (Dorrado? You don’t think…) “The only indication anything had changed were the big rooflights, and a satellite dish” (The only indications … were … the lights,) Aristophanes’ (Aristophanes’s,) the island called Despair in the text is rendered in Sidony’s journal as Ile de l’Espoir (espoir actually means hope,) Coleman’s mustard (Colman’s,) “various Gunns, Hawkins,” (Hawkinses,) archeology (archaeology – or even archæology,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) “among less privileged stratas of society” (among less privileged strata of society. Strata is already the plural, one of them is a stratum,) “and so he told it her again” (told it to her is a less awkward formulation,) Ormulu (Ormolu,) pernickity (pernickety,) atop of them (just ‘atop threm’, or else, ‘on top of them’,) the Marseilleise (the Marseillaise.)

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