After a long winter and lockdowns, the idea of being a castaway may seem romantic: a desert island panting beneath a high sun, nothing but endless ocean in sight. Yet peer a little closer and a harsher reality comes into view – one of extreme isolation and the brutality of survival.
When I was writing The Castaways, a thriller in which a plane crash leaves a group of strangers stranded on an island in the South Pacific, I was interested in exploring who we become when no one is watching. When the thin veneer of civilisation peels back, how do we behave? What matters the most?
The following books are ones I adore. While the dictionary definition of a castaway is “a person who has been shipwrecked and stranded in an isolated place”, my list also includes books that examine why we may seek out our own isolation – be it on an island, a boat or a lighthouse. Each explores how the removal of the familiar can provide a challenge for survival, yet also a tantalising space for self-discovery.
1. I Am An Island by Tamsin Calidas
This memoir explores Calidas’s decision to swap city life for a remote Hebridean island. A series of devastating events leads to the breakdown of her marriage, and Calidas finds herself alone and isolated, cast away from the places and people she knows. Ultimately, it is the power of nature and the rhythm of the tides that offer both a healing and an awakening. It’s a book about solitude, resilience and survival.
2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
No list of castaway books would be complete without this 1954 novel, following a group of British schoolboys who become stranded on an uninhabited island. At first, they try to create an organised, civilised and safe place to live, but their attempts quickly descend into unruly chaos. We become witness to the base cruelties that branch from desperation and a hunger for power.
3. The Beach by Alex Garland
Nick Hornby once described The Beach as “Lord of the Flies for Generation X”. When backpacker Richard is given a hand-sketched map, it promises to lead him to an unknown island and a secret beach untouched by tourism. Intrigued, Richard and two friends set off on a journey of discovery, eventually uncovering a community of travellers living on the shores of a Thai island. But utopia is laced with darkness, and the island paradise descends into violence and madness. An entire generation of travellers (me included) tucked this novel into their backpacks and went in search of the undiscovered.
4. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Set on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, this timeless book tells the tale of an elderly artist spending a summer with her six-year-old granddaughter. Together they explore the island, discovering simple pleasures in nature, like the migration of birds or the arrival of a storm. Ali Smith said this book “reads like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth”. It is one to be savoured for its gentle wisdom and gleaming wit.
5. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
The quintessential desert-island adventure, first published in 1719, sees the titular castaway spend 28 years on a remote, tropical island after being shipwrecked. He gradually creates a life for himself, building a house, fighting cannibals, and befriending Friday, a prisoner whose life he saves. It is believed that Defoe’s inspiration for the story came from real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who spent four years on an uninhabited island off the Chilean coast.
6. Dirt Music by Tim Winton
Australia’s Winton writes landscapes and loners with unrivalled rawness and clarity. In Dirt Music, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2002, he writes of Lu Fox, an outcast in the tough coastal town of his childhood. When events conspire and he is chased out of town, he chooses to cast himself away on an island off the west Australian coast. Lu lives only in the company of sharks and rays, foraging and fishing for his meals. Winton explores our communion with nature, and those grainy stretches of our lives when we crave an island for ourselves.
7. Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies
This picture book is a favourite with our children at bedtime. A young boy climbs through a door in his grandad’s attic, only to journey to a wild, beautiful island awash with colour – where grandad decides he must remain. It’s a charming and wise tale about loved ones living on in our memories. The cheerful illustrations of an unreachable island lightens the message and allows plenty of space for discussing what follows life.
8. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex
Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters (which publishes on 4 March) is set in a remote lighthouse off the Cornish coast. Three keepers vanish from their postings, yet the door remains locked, the clocks have stopped, and the weather log details a mighty storm, despite the skies having been clear all week. Twenty years later as what happened to the three men becomes clearer, the story evolves into a story of love, grief, and the profound effects of extreme isolation.
9. Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I do most of my writing by hand in a beach hut, which is perhaps why Gift From the Sea is a book I regularly return to. First published in 1955, the author takes refuge in a beach shack for two weeks each year, granting herself space to think and breathe outside her role as a mother: “I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes; a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return.” Choosing to be cast away from her family, she gains wisdom and solace from the shells she collects, nature becoming her teacher, and the horizon providing the ideal blank space from which to create.
10. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, a 16-year-old boy ends up drifting in a lifeboat for 227 days with only a hyena, zebra, orangutan and Bengal tiger for company. How’s that for an unlikely bunch of castaways? Pi’s journey is as an allegory for the spiritual journey of finding faith and belief in one’s self. It’s one of the best loved works of modern fiction and has garnered many fans, including Barack Obama, who wrote a letter directly to Martel, describing Life of Pi as “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling”.
• The Castaways by Lucy Clarke is published 18 March (HarperCollins).