Gwyneth Jones’ latest novel as Ann Halam takes a traditional adventure scenario – three teenage castaways, survivors of an air crash – and turns it into more than just a survival story. Semirah is a shy, chubby teenager who’s won a place on a conservation holiday in Ecuador. Failing to make friends with any of her fellow travellers at the airport, she is overwhelmed when Cool Girl – Miranda, whose parents are anthropologists – seems to befriend her on the plane. When disaster strikes, Semi and Miranda find themselves marooned on a tropical island with only the belligerent Arnie for company. Between them they manage to survive, and to cope with the horrors of their situation: body parts in the lagoon, the inevitable sharks, the challenge of staying alive …
Then the trouble really starts. Arnie disappears, and the two girls give him up for lost. Weeks later, they stumble across a hidden route into the centre of the island, and find themselves surrounded by armed men. They are introduced to Dr Skinner (nervously alcoholic) and to his boss, Dr Franklin. Dr Franklin has plans for the castaways, and there is no hope of escape or rescue. Even sensible Miranda begins to panic: for Dr Franklin’s research concerns genetic engineering, and Semi and Miranda are ideal specimens.
‘Nothing like it has ever been written before’ claims the back cover: some readers, however, may spot more than a passing resemblance to H G Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. Dr Franklin is certainly the literary descendant of Wells’ archetypal mad scientist. However, his methods are quite different – science, after all, has progressed – and his stated goals are laudably altruistic.
Ann Halam is not exploring racial and economic equality (as has been persuasively argued regarding the Wells novel) but the transcending nature of friendship, and the lessons that can be learnt as two people come to know each other well.
There’s more of the beauty and mystery of transformation in this novel than in Wells’ dark and menacing tale: while Semi and Miranda react with realistic horror, they retain enough humanity to appreciate the gifts that are being forced upon them. Perhaps the fact that Semi, the narrator, is a victim rather than a horrified observer, helps to make the story emotionally affecting.