Reviewed by Marisa Deshaies
In the heart of World War I, two young adults find friendship and love through adversity on the tiny Caribbean Island of St. Thomas. Spy Island, by native West Indies author Sophie Schiller, brings to light the challenges of island life in the early 1900s Caribbean and shows that the choices made are often much more layered than a simple decision allows.
Left an orphan in her late teens, Abigail Maduro is sent to St. Thomas to live with her eccentric spinster aunt in a dilapidated house on an island slowly losing its wealth and prestige amongst the Caribbean islands. Abigail loves intrigue, mysteries, history, and current events—all catalysts for the political currents being stirred amongst the local St. Thomas natives, Dutch colonialists, and German spies infiltrating the island. Left to fend for herself with little to do on the island, Abigail befriends a deserter of the German army—her mind says her decision is dangerous but her heart says to show him compassion. As the Americans, Dutch, and Germans fight for the rights of St. Thomas as a colony, Abigail and Erich must cautiously navigate their way amongst those who could hurt Erich’s chances of survival and the Maduro family’s good name amongst St. Thomas’ elite.
Historical fiction novel Spy Island is a story that will resonate with its readers for its rich cultural and historical facts. These are embedded so well into the plots and characters of the novel that it is hard to believe that the people of St. Thomas are not walking right along with you. Schiller grew up in the West Indies, and it is obvious that her knowledge and love of her homeland fueled her characterization and plotlines. From the local dialect spoken by St. Thomas natives to facts of German, Dutch, American, and West Indies position during World War I, Spy Island brims with the intrigue and locality of the times that only someone with cultural experience of the setting can truly invoke into a story.
Spy Island’s strength lies in its historical setting of a Caribbean island during World War I. Novels taking place during this time period are not as readily written about as those during World War II. Schiller’s decision to set her novel in 1916 is much appreciated because of the uniqueness and the new knowledge of the Caribbean’s significance to the war not previously known.
Nevertheless, Spy Island’s prose and language were difficult to get through for lengthy descriptions and challenging dialog. As much as the local dialect was appreciated in terms of the novel’s characterizations, the over-emphasis of the Caribbean-flavored language was used too strongly for realistic purposes. The incorrect grammar was a challenge to accept constantly and the focus needed to understand the dialog took away from the rest of the story. In addition, Abigail and Erich’s dialog felt stilted and unnatural, especially in their conversations with each other. They did not speak to each other as “best friends,” – their term for their relationship for a majority of the book – would talk in informal and casual ways. Abigail tends to jump around in her conversations with other characters, which is incredibly hard to believe because a majority of people are able to focus in their conversations. Erich, on the other hand, details his experiences so much that his story almost becomes boring.
Spy Island’s characters are likable at best and challenging at worst. Abigail’s situation is devastating, and readers will find the hardships she experiences heart-wrenching. Her Aunt Esther is truly a horrendous person; despite Aunt Esther’s unfortunate circumstances, the actions she takes against her niece are unspeakable. However, Abigail’s behaviors are not completely understandable—can a teenager truly justify tantrums and backtalk to an adult? In addition, the bravery—or possibly stupidity, depending on reader perspective—and circumstances Abigail finds herself in are not always realistic. Abigail’s nanny, Nana Jane, and her cook, Cooky Betty, however, are hysterical in their conversations and actions. These two old St. Thomas women take many of the dry scenes in the Maduro house and turn them into laughable scenarios. Schiller’s ability to evoke the true sense of daily Caribbean life is a breath of fresh air in Spy Island.
This novel is recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction.
An alumna of the University of Delaware’s English department, Marisa holds a Master’s degree in professional writing from New England College. Her dream job is to work as an editor for a publishing company. A voracious reader of all types of literature, her favorite genres include the classics, contemporary and historical fiction, Christian fiction, and women’s “chick-lit”.
Review copy was provided by Sophie Schiller. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.