An Island to Oneself, Tom Neale, 1966
- Cook Islands, #4
- Digital edition, free from privateislandsonline.com
- Read September 2015
- Rating: 2.5/5
- Recommended for: People who don’t like people
This is one of those books that probably shouldn’t be on the list, but that I couldn’t resist once I’d heard of it. Tom Neale is not a native of Cook Islands; he was born and raised in New Zealand. He moved to Tahiti as a young man and spent several decades bopping around the South Pacific, where he crossed paths with Robert Dean Frisbie, Andy Thompson, Ron Powell, and the others from the cast of white adventurers that keep cropping up in these Cook Islands books. Hearing of Frisbie’s time on Suvarrow Atoll, he became obsessed with the idea of going and living there on his own. He was in his fifties before he got the chance, and An Island to Oneself is the story of his struggle to get to the island and his struggle to survive once there. Living alone on a remote island is a dream I share, so I was excited to read this book and even though it didn’t strictly fit the rules of my project, I left it on the list.
In retrospect, I should have realized it wasn’t going to be great. Running away to an island is not just my dream–it’s a common one–so it seems unlikely that a really good book on the subject would remain as obscure as An Island to Oneself. Neale is an unlikeable narrator, an extremely idiosyncratic, single-minded person who takes pride in odd things. The things that are appealing about the tropics–the sunshine, the ease of life, the glory of the sunsets, the beauty of the reefs–are barely present in his account. Instead, he obsessively delineates his narrow diet and his many labors, and he doesn’t seem to enjoy his surroundings except for the hardships they impose. He doesn’t seem to have been in love with islands at all, but only with solitude. He could just as easily have been alone in the middle of the woods in Montana (and now that I think of it, there is something unabomber-ish about him) or Alaska; he kind of reminds me of Chris McCandless from Into the Wild, minus the charm and youthful exuberance. Maybe he would have been more likable if Jon Krakauer had written this story. At the very least he would have been a lot more interesting. In his own account, Neale is perverse and obsessive; he nearly kills himself building a pier out of heavy coral boulders, a task that takes months and is completely undone by the first tropical storm. He complains of being weak from lack of meat, but when he kills five wild pigs to keep them from uprooting his garden, he is too squeamish to eat their flesh. Granted, this is early on, before he’s run through his supplies of tinned beef, but it seems a waste, and a distinct lack of economy and foresight on his part.
My dislike for him peaked when I read the afterward (one of about six) written by his daughter–a daughter whose existence is never mentioned in the narrative of the book. Between Neale’s two stints on Suvarrow, he married a woman from Palmerston Island, had two children with her, and abandoned them all in New Zealand. Stella writes of her father with love and admiration, but between the lines is a heartbreaking saga of constantly unreturned affections. Neale seems to have been severely emotionally stunted, unable to either realize or care about the harm he inflicted on his children. I couldn’t help but compare him to his hero, Robert Dean Frisbie, who cared for his four children as a single father after his wife’s death. I thought particularly of his account of being trapped with them on Suvarrow during a hurricane in Island of Desire; he thinks that if one of them were to drown he would take the others and walk into the sea, rather than live with the loss. A terrifying sort of love, but in my mind preferable to Neale’s apathy.