Monday, October 26, 2020

Sarah Tolmie's "The Fourth Island"

Sarah Tolmie is a poet, speculative fiction writer, finalist for the Crawford Award and professor of English at the University of Waterloo. Her books of poetry, Trio in 2015 and The Art of Dying in 2018, were shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award and the Griffin Prize, respectively. Her fiction includes the novels The Little Animals (2019) and The Stone Boatmen (2014), the dual novella collection Two Travelers (2016), and the short fiction collection NoFood (2014).

Here Tolmie dreamcasts an adaptation of her new novella, The Fourth Island:
Who would want to make a movie of a quiet sort of book set in an imaginary Aran island in 1840, before the famine? Jim Sheridan, perhaps? But then, what if the story was also a time-travel story? Aha, like Outlander, genre moviemakers might say? Sadly no, there’s not enough sex or violence. Plenty of implied violence. After all, the story features Cromwell. And two priests who escape the Belgian revolution of 1830. But the main gambit of the book is despair. The experience of despair is the ticket that gets people to Inis Caillte, the fourth, lost Aran island. Who wants to make that movie?

My first thought was Anthony Minghella. Let’s face it, he’s about as likely as anybody. He would have done beautifully with it. The man who could make the poet’s book that is The English Patient into a movie —a feat that I seriously doubted was possible — would be the dream director for a book like this. The whole thing is about texture and mental experience, and about coming out the other end of deadly suffering. Into what? A bit more life, perhaps, in a low-key sort of place, a small island with no government and no God. Come to think of it, another director who would have affinity for this story would be Hirokazu Kore-Eda (who is A. alive, and B., a towering genius). His beautiful movie Afterlife has exactly the tone I would want to see for The Fourth Island. On the wild offchance that Neil Gaiman would want to make his directorial debut with this movie, he would also be welcome. I say this on the strength of my admiration for The Graveyard Book. There are some overlaps in ghostliness between the two stories.

Cast. No idea. I assume — and would prefer — that any movie made of this book would be some kind of Canadian-Irish/EU co-production. Therefore the actors would mostly be Irish. There are plenty of them. We would, in justice, have to throw in a few Canadians. Colm Feore could play Old Conor MacIntosh, patriarch of Inis Caillte and friend and protector of the main character, Meg, a camp follower from Cromwell’s army who accidentally ends up there after a battle in 1650. (You may have heard the old line “There are only seven Canadian actors and three of them are X.” I would say Feore now holds the title.) The other main character, Nellie, is deaf. Casting a deaf actress in the role would be one of the most important things that such a movie could do. Nellie, who grows up nearly feral on the outskirts of a village on Inis Mor, is transported to the lost island while dying of a fever in 1828. When she awakes on the shore of Inis Caillte, she can hear. The island endows the people who land on it with the gift of tongues: people from many places and times can speak to each other. This is the form the magic takes for Nellie and she is less than thrilled with it. After a rough transition to the hearing world, she ends up becoming the island’s most famous poet, a job she can occupy partly in a self-imposed silence. As a role it would give a deaf or hearing-impaired performer a lot to do: it’s a lead role, and one in which deafness is treated as more than a disability.

Having written this about these two female leads — there are two central male characters, as well, though now that I consider it in the light of casting, it seems to me that the women are the true leads — it has suddenly popped into my head: Patricia Rozema. Yes! She is the one! Revisionist historical fiction! Female leads! Samuel Beckett! Irish co-productions! Despair. An unassuming sort of survival. Why didn’t I think of her immediately?

Now I have.
Visit Sarah Tolmie's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Fourth Island.

--Marshal Zeringue