Review: All My Lonely Islands by V.J. Campilan

All My Lonely Islands
by V.J. Campilan

Synopsis:
One crisp March evening, Crisanta and Ferdinand arrive on the remote Batanes islands for a mission: locate Graciella, whose son, Stevan, they saw die in a tragic accident a decade ago. But they need to confess something to her: Stevan’s death is not all what it seems. Oppressed by a decade of painful memories, Crisanta and Ferdinand must race against time—from the wild swamplands of the Sundarban forest in Bangladesh to the back alleys of Manila to the savage cliffs of Batanes—to offer Graciella the truth that they themselves cannot bear to face.


(cover image and synopsis lifted from Goodreads)



Series: Standalone
Publisher: Anvil Publishing
Publication date:  January 2017
Source/Format: Provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review / Paperback
Purchase link: Anvil Publishing Online Store | Amazon | Kobo


My Thoughts:

“All My Lonely Islands” won the Grand Prize for the Novel in the 2015 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. How could I even dare to review a novel that won such a prestigious award? It is honestly an intimidating task but I’ll try. One of the Palanca Awards judges blurbed and praised the book for its “sparkling prose” and I agree with it 100%. The plot is pretty much uncomplicated and if I were to write the story, it would be just straightforward and be over by two pages. But Crisanta, the narrator, has an artful way of telling it. I am simply blown away by her beautiful way of expressing things. Crisanta is a self-proclaimed “weaver of words” but the truth of the matter is, she is just stalling. She is about to tell the truth but she is evading it altogether so she took time in telling, careful not to spill everything just yet and used enchanting and flowing words to conjure “ghosts, cobwebs, and sickly metaphors”. She puts up phrases to form “wispy things that can hold up an entire decade of recollection”. It’s like going down on a Pensieve, this magical basin of swirling memories in the Potterverse.

If you are looking for something to read with romantic fluff, stay away. Okay, I am not exactly warding off fluff readers because I am a fluff reader myself and I unexpectedly came to love the book. What I am really trying to say is if you are picking up this book, get your heart ready because it is a bit heavy. There is teenage romance, maybe even a love triangle, but it is all ambiguous and strange. I like the ambiguity and strangeness of it: no big declaration of feelings whatsoever, only furtive glances, only thoughtful acts. Then the rivalry between Ferdinand and Stevan is so restrained, almost psychological.

"Isn’t it strange? How we could destroy each other for all these things that don’t matter in the end?"

The overall tone of the book is unabashedly somber, the sound of a weary soul looking for forgiveness or redemption. Crisanta is almost always in an introspection. The story cuts between the past and present Crisanta who “hate each other”. She sifts through her memories from her childhood in the streets of Manila to her teenage years in Bangladesh in search for some meaning, for some reason why, after all those years, she is currently in Batanes about to face the mother of her dead bestfriend, Stevan. For an outsider, what really happened was just stuff high school urban legends are made of, but for the ones involved, Crisanta, Ferdinand, and Graciella, it’s a personal tragedy. Their grief and guilt are so palpable that flipping through the pages, the reader is not just an outsider anymore. The reader becomes involved and deeply affected as well. I swear I have this general gloom over me while reading the book even my sister noticed, “Ate, why do you look so sad?” And I sighed, “Well, it’s this book that I’m reading...”

"But there was no one to blame, because everyone was guilty. In the end we simply hurt each other because we can't help it"

It’s not all sadness. The book is interspersed with light, even laughable images, for example, try picturing a teacher riding a unicycle to school with one hand holding a mug of coffee and the other waving to the curious people in the streets. Crisanta’s childhood memories in Manila is a bit of a blissful nostalgia for me because we both grew up playing the same games and hearing the same stories about Filipino monsters or "maligno", as we call them. There are tender, heartwarming moments especially from scenes with Crisanta’s dad in it. I like her dad. He gives this Atticus Finch vibe to me, kind but just. The book sometimes smacks the reader with social commentaries, observations from Crisanta, backdrops for her story. The book even tries to be meta, “All those big words. Polished sentences. Musings about society.”

"Why come back to this empty house, and this Manila with a strange face; the one I never knew? All those lonely islands. They will keep afloat without me."
The ending is bittersweet. I was bawling my eyes out reading the last few pages. My tears are the tears of a sinner newly baptized in the Jordan River. Okay sorry, I’m just attempting to insert a biblical metaphor here because the book is scattered with it. Let me try in layperson feels: it’s being able to find hope in the ruins of a personal tragedy. As a reader, it’s like the book snatched my heart and made it heavy. The book is like, “Here, try carrying this heavy heart.” Then the book snatched my heart again, lifted the weight and finally brought it back to me feeling lighter than it was before. I still have the heart that I had at the start but it does not feel the same after trying on all those heavy weight. “All My Lonely Islands” is brilliant, I can easily declare it as a modern Filipino literary masterpiece. And I think it is very much worth reading, especially for those looking and advocating for #ownvoices books.


My Rating:

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