I’ve never read anything by Ernest Hemingway before. I have always had this view of him as being hard drinking, fishing and very male. Nevertheless, as part of the research into my challenge to read one book from each of the sixty years of my life I noticed that there was a Hemingway book available for 1970 so I thought that I would give it a try. Having read it, my view of Hemingway hasn’t changed at all but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading his beautifully crafted prose.
Islands in the Stream was published after the author’s death and is the last book that he wrote. I can’t compare it with his other books but my research (Amazon reviews and Google) shows me that it is considered typical of his writing.
The book is set in the Bahamas, then Cuba and then in the waters around Cuba. It is split into three sections. The main character is Thomas Hudson who is a painter and lives alone near a beach although he has had a past life, mainly in Paris, where he was very involved in the culture of the time. In the first part of the book his three sons come for the summer and he and his friends become involved in their lives. He is divorced from the mothers of his children and only sees them once each year. This summer he observes them growing into men and he is concerned that they will grow into the right sort of man. In the second part of the book he is living in his property in Cuba during the war. He has been bereaved and the book concentrates on how he handles his grief and also how he relates to the mother of one of his sons who comes to the island. In the third section he is living aboard a boat which is searching the seas in and around islands for enemies and he is wounded.
The story is told mostly through dialogue and there are a lot of minor characters with whom Thomas interacts. In the first, and longest, section he has a friend living with him but there are other friends, people who own bars or who he meets in bars, servants and in the final section other sailors. When we can’t find out what Thomas is thinking through dialogue the narrator tells us and they also explain many events to us. The book is a series of events/activities which involve Thomas and those who surround him and we then move on from one to the next one which often seems unconnected – reading the whole book gives you an impression of Thomas’ life and priorities but you don’t get to know any other character as well.
The book is very male focussed. There are women characters but often we are not given their name or they use a name which is not theirs. The women disappear quickly or are just glimpsed in the background but the characters do spend time thinking about and discussing how they look. Mostly the book is about men talking to one another and undertaking activities together such as deep sea fishing, drinking, talking, letting off fireworks, searching for enemy boats and playing practical jokes on outsiders. There is an insane amount of drinking going on in the text and servants seem to spend all their time making new drinks for Thomas and his friends. In the last section Thomas has stopped drinking, probably because of grief, but the other characters drink at the same rate. Strangely, they all look down on and despise characters who have an alcohol dependence – they are described as “rummy”.
Despite the fact that most of the subject matter of this book didn’t interest me I still found myself engaged by the writing. The author knows how to conjure up a scene and hold the attention of the reader. There is one scene when Thomas’s son is trying to land a fish which is captivating although I have no interest in fishing – the tension is built up well and you become consumed by the need to see the boy succeed.
I’m glad I read this book but I can’t say that I loved it. I admired how it was written and the skill of the author but the whole “manly” atmosphere of the book and the content of the story were not really my thing. I wouldn’t rule out reading another book by the same author in the future though.