Books

Book Review: Nine Island by Jane Alison

Nine Island is an intimate autobiographical novel, told by J, a woman who lives in a glass tower on one of Miami Beach’s lush Venetian Islands. After decades of disaster with men, she is trying to decide whether to withdraw forever from romantic love. Having just returned to Miami from a monthlong reunion with an old flame, “Sir Gold,” and a visit to her fragile mother, J begins translating Ovid’s magical stories about the transformations caused by Eros. “A woman who wants, a man who wants nothing. These two have stalked the world for thousands of years,” she thinks.

When not ruminating over her sexual past and current fantasies, in the company of only her aging cat, J observes the comic, sometimes steamy goings-on among her faded-glamour condo neighbors. One of them, a caring nurse, befriends her, eventually offering the opinion that “if you retire from love… then you retire from life.

I’m a 22 year old who has had thoughts about giving up on love. Of course, this book intrigued me. What would a middle aged woman’s life be like alone and loveless? The protagonist, J, tries to sort out exactly what she wants in life after getting divorced and rekindling an old flame that ultimately went nowhere. At first her cat, mother, and neighbours seem to sustain her. But the past is always creeping up in the back of her mind. When is it okay to give up on love? One of the main characters profoundly remarks, “To retire from love is to retire from life.”

This book has given me a lot of food for thought. I hoped to gain some insights but I don’t feel any less confused or more confused after reading it. There seems to be a lot going towards trying to find love. I expressed my feelings of becoming a cat lady to a friend and she replied with, “But who’s going to take care of you when you’re old? If you die, your cats will just eat you.” She has a point, which Alison also touched on in the book. Most people who have a family are usually taken care of by their children. Sure, I could admit myself to a retirement home if I get that old but maybe it might be different if I had kids.

And as a human being with certain needs and urges, I thought that I could just, you know, take care of myself in that department when I’m older and alone. Alison also addressed this. Ultimately, it really depends if you’re okay with that and if you could sustain yourself that way. I think I could get by.

Of course, there’s also the loneliness factor. J focuses greatly on her work translating Ovid and her little side project of trying to save a duck. Her hobbies are a little off the wall but are they really hobbies or are they just distractions? I myself have a wealth of projects that should keep me busy and content but they don’t always fill as much space as I would like them to sometimes.

Human contact is also a must which J gets no shortage of. Her neighbours, her cat, her past flings, and her mother are all social outlets that she utilizes. I’ve entertained the idea of becoming a complete social recluse but I know that would not go out well. As much of an introvert that I (think I) am, I do enjoy being around people. I feel more human that way.

With all these thoughts swirling in my mind I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the arguments made in the book. There is really no hard conclusion that J comes to at the end. Maybe she’ll stumble into love one day, maybe not. At the moment, she seems pretty okay with where her life is. So is the moral of the story to just go with the flow and take opportunities where they crop up? I’m not sure.

While I did focus a little too much on the content, it’s not hard to notice that Alison’s writing is absolutely dreamy. Her words float around you and bite at you with clever quips and wise insights. Her characters are all a little quirky and feel almost not real but it’s not hard to believe people like these exist. I wish I could have slowed down a little bit more to absorb how well written this book was but I was too engrossed in the story.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I ate it up in two days after a reading dry spell. God, who knew Jane Austen could be so boring sometimes (I was in the process of reading Northanger Abbey at the time)? So this little novel was a good change of pace.

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