David W. Berner’s New Novella,The Islander
Monday, April 10, 2023
by Floyd Sullivan
An aging writer wishes to end his days alone on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. Work becomes difficult; walking becomes difficult. His son seems to be concerned for his safety, but only out of perceived filial duty. A young woman, a solitary traveler, appears on the island and needs shelter from a storm. In the end it is she who provides emotional shelter for the writer.
Chicago writer David W. Berner has visited the themes of aging and intergenerational relationships in a foreign setting before in short fiction, in particular his Rainbow Man. The attractions of travel and of searching for new places to find one’s spiritual bearings, are metaphors Berner has developed over the years, but never as profoundly, as poignantly, as in The Islander.
Berner has also been turning to the novella, and its implicit discipline, to develop these themes. The novella, in my limited experience, has become an increasingly popular fiction format. But it also has a gloried history among Chicago Literary Hall of Fame (CLHOF) inductees and Fuller Award winners. Ernest Hemingway’s (CLHOF 2012 inductee) novella The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and contributed greatly to Hemingway being honored with a Nobel Prize in 1954. Saul Bellow’s (CLHOF 2010) The Actual is a very brief 96 pages. Sherwood Anderson’s (CLHOF 2012) Winesburg, Ohio short story cycle can be thought of as a novella at 160 pages. Recent Fuller Award winner (2021) Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street is a compact 103 or 110 pages, depending on which edition you read. And, although not a CLHOF author, Philip Roth wrote his very popular novella Goodbye, Columbus while at the University of Chicago.
What defines a novella? Generally, a novella is a work of fiction of from 15,000 to 40,000 words. I have also seen it defined as fiction of under 200 pages, but page counts can be manipulated by leading, margins, fonts, trim size etc. When and why does an author choose to compose a work of this length? Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine editor Linda Landrigan said it best, as quoted on "The Wolfe Pack" website: "We need to stress that a novella is not a padded short story. A novella needs to be as tight ... as a short story or a novel. Authors need to ensure that the story they want to tell is properly sized for whatever format they choose." Indeed, Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe series of mysteries, wrote more novellas than novels (39 to 33). Berner’s The Islander is perfectly sized at its 164 pages (Kindle edition). Berner is participating in a novella project called "The Shortish" developed by his publisher Outpost 19 Books.
Set mostly on a Blasket Island off Ireland’s Dingle peninsula, The Islander is the story of aging American writer Seamus Damp who lives a monastic life alone on the island mostly to escape his troubled past, a past that his son who lives in the town of Dingle, still resents. One stormy evening a young woman named Maddie, traveling the world alone, knocks on his door because her tent has been all but destroyed by violent winds and rain. They develop a bond as Maddie helps Seamus understand and deal with his past mistakes, while he becomes a role model for her as someone who has found a level of peace living alone in a very special place.
Coincidentally, my sister Margie was living in Dingle for a month as my copy of The Islander arrived. With the author’s permission I forwarded a copy to her thinking it might be especially meaningful for her to read the novella while there. Here’s what she says about The Islander :
I really enjoyed The Islander by David W. Berner. More than one of its themes resonated with me. The most obvious -- I am in Dingle, enjoying an experiment in living by myself in a new country which happens to be Dingle, Ireland. My solitude is not nearly equal to the protagonist in the story, but nevertheless something I deal with ongoing as a widow and am learning to embrace. There are most likely many of us introverts that have at some point in our lives dreamed of having his life.
Imperfect people are so much more interesting to read about. Another reason I liked his story was his really good characterizations. And of course the empathetic, singular girl Maddie so reminds me of Grace. (Blogger's note: Margie's daughter Grace travels the world alone, much like the character Maddie. She housesits or dogsits or takes care of properties while the owners are away, and then moves on to just about anywhere! She’s also a trained chef and uses that skill to find work from time to time.) When she decides to stay at his house I felt vicarious relief for her mother! The idea of one old solitary guy barely hanging on by himself in a harsh but magical setting then passing the torch to a solo female traveler is very compelling to me. Thank you so much for showing this to me.
The Islander by David W. Berner is available in digital and print formats from any online book seller. Or ask your independent bookseller to order it for you!
Floyd Sullivan is the author of three books, including Called Out: A novel of base ball and America in 1908, as well as numerous short stories. He is a former Chicago Literary Hall of Fame board member and continues to volunteer for the CLHOF.