Robin Baker’s novel about a group of young students trapped on an idyllic island during a research expedition could easily have been a pedestrian The Beach meets Lord Of The Flies. It has elements of both of these books, along with many others thrown in and, despite some moments of dullness, manages to carve out its own corner in the world of literature.
Baker tells the story from his own perspective; he’s a real academic author (having written Sperm Wars, amongst other things) tasked with the duty of telling the story of a group of survivors rescued from a research project on an island that went horrible wrong. Initially, he works with a young girl called Ysan to piece together what happened, but as things go along she stops talking to him and he has to assemble the rest from a string of, admittedly, dubious sources. This is a bit of a blow, as he’s only managed to sort the first three months of a year and a bit of exile. Perhaps it would have been better if he hadn’t slept with his subject, but there you go.
The survivors, you see, are sticking to this wonderful story that, whilst some of them died due to a variety of mishaps, they managed to bond together, overcome the odds and survive. Except, their story is missing many months’ worth of activity. As Baker digs deeper and deeper, it becomes apparent that paradise turned to hell, with violence, death, rape and destruction all coming along for the ride.
Primal is in two parts – Ysan’s Story and Aftershocks. Ysan’s story is the story of what happened to one particular character, shy student girl, Ysan, who is more interested in studying apes than anything else. She tells of their arrival on the island, the joy and freedom it offers and the research projects that they are all involved in.
It seems that everything is going well until, within the space of a week, their clothes are lost, a fire destroys their supply of food and their back-up escape route of a boat is destroyed. As if this isn’t enough to cause suspicion that something is afoot, Antonio (who only speaks Spanish) keeps vanishing for vast periods of time and Raul (the organiser of the trip) is missing presumed dead.
Ysan begins to get more and more suspicious but, having alienated herself from everyone by sleeping with Raul, she has to juggle the dual responsibility of her research with her desire to discover the truth.
In the background, we’ve got a slew of other characters – amongst them Danny, the shallow stud, Sledge, the responsible adult with the temper, Rose the kindly nurse, Abi, the bitchy one, Pete, the ugly, slow one, and Ian, the geeky one. These characteristics are painted on with a trowel and form the weakest part of the narrative.
It’s in the second part of the book that things heat up. Trying to unravel what really happened over the final ten months, Baker obtains evidence in the form of drawings made on the island to create a timeline. Technically speaking, these drawings are from another individual and would give no more sense of accuracy that Ysan’s version of events, but Baker also drops in notes that other survivors have made to sidestep this. It’s all told with such verve that you quickly forget the shortcomings of the material.
It turns out that, whilst things started swimmingly, the camp soon descended into brutal behaviour, with the aforementioned violence, death, rape and destruction all in plentiful supply as the survivors quickly realise that no rescue is imminent. Whilst some characters are less affected by these events, others become consumed by them, leading to the author questioning the legal ramifications once his book is published. After all, if these things really did happen, then with proof there comes guilt.
Sadly, once again, this is a weakness in the book. The ending isn’t very satisfactory and becomes, even within the confines of the text, a bit fantastical. There is no justice mentioned in the book; an addendum explaining what happened post publication to each character would have set this off nicely. Whilst it also focuses on the rescue of the characters, covered in the press, there are no press clippings, nor are there any photos to give the metafiction that added sense of reality.
Despite being a fictional account of fictional events told as if they’d actually happened, the book is mostly gripping and there are moments when you do forget that you are reading a novel.
Baker’s prose is occasionally self indulgent, especially in the first part – just how many times did he have to tell us about his love of Ysan! Also, there are a couple of moments, one involving Ian bleeding from the bottom (“Piles” claims Baker, only to be stunned later by the reality) and not knowing why Ysan had called her baby AR, that make you wonder whether or not Baker wants to portray himself as missing the obvious!
Does it work? Yes, it does. It’s definitely worth a read. Don’t expect Lord Of The Flies, or The Beach, but treat it for what it is – a pseudo-psychological piece of metafiction that is mostly well crafted crafted and remains intriguing but suffers from a bit of a flat ending.
Primal is available in paperback now.