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Essence of My Desire

The Island by Jill Jones
(St. Martin’s, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-97073-0
Although it took me a chapter or two to get my bearings, The Island proved to be a fascinating story based on an unexpected premise: the existence of an isolated social system in present-day Cornwall where villagers preserve traditions virtually unchanged from medieval times. Like the Amish in America, the Dragoners of the island of Keinadraig have chosen to isolate themselves from progress in order to preserve a way of life they value. Since this way of life includes archaic speech patterns, it was difficult at first to locate the action in time.

The story does take place in the present, although the weight of the past, both historical, and personal, is a major theme. Keely Cochrane is an islander with a dilemma: her best friend has begged for and received her help to escape the island. Unfortunately, leaving the island without permission is forbidden. According to the islanders’ beliefs, such an action will result in death. Keely does not know whether she has helped her friend to freedom or to doom.

Jack Knight is an American in England trying to help his best friend. An ex-detective with the LAPD, Jack has accepted a job as a private investigator with a firm owned by his best friend’s father. There is some tangled emotional history between father, son and friend, and Jack is not confident that he’s doing the right thing. Before these issues can be resolved, Jack finds his friend Brad critically wounded in Brad’s hotel room with a gun in his hand and a dead woman on his floor. Jack finds a phone number in the room that leads him to Keinadraig, and to Keely.

Not being much of a mystery connoisseur, I can’t say whether that aspect of the story will disappoint readers. What I really enjoyed, was the author’s exploration of Keely’s emergence from the influence of the closed society of the island into the twentieth century. In spite of a few character issues that struck a false note -- notably the fact that a young woman, raised in an authoritarian society, who finds herself in a terrifying situation worries constantly, with remarkable political correctness, about being overly dependent -- Keely’s emotional journey from vague dissatisfaction to open rebellion is portrayed with insight and skill.

Both Keely and Jack are extremely attractive characters with a refreshing lack of conventional hang-ups. Jack has some baggage, but it doesn’t lead him to be emotionally distant or cynical. He’s respectful of Keely’s heritage even when he doesn’t share her fears and convictions. He’s surprised to find himself attracted to her, sensitive enough to worry about her vulnerability to his desire, and passionate enough to respond to her obvious interest with enthusiasm. When he realizes he has fallen in love with her, he is thoughtful enough to realize that his best interests might be different from hers, and that he might not be able to give her all the help that she needs. He appreciates the problems inherent in any relationship between them from her perspective as well as his own.

Keely is an especially well-drawn character. It would have been so easy, especially since she uses archaic dialect and has had such limited experiences, to make her a caricature; instead, she is smart and determined. I was particularly impressed that the author emphasized the personal qualities that, in my experience, really do enable people to break free of unhealthy situations: the ability to recognize and question hostile actions against others, and the willingness to acknowledge their own pain. Keely begins to question her traditions as a result of the actions taken against her friend by the community, she finally leaves when she realizes that the community’s traditions ignore her personal burdens and needs. Loyalty to her friend opens the door; loyalty to herself leads her out.

There were a few missteps in the plot toward the end of the story: secondary characters who were given enough emphasis to catch the reader’s attention, but not enough to be fully developed; story details that were wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly to be credible. However, I closed the cover with a feeling of happy satisfaction. This was an unusual and perceptively written story about characters whose inner lives were as intriguing as their adventures. I am delighted to recommend The Island and look forward to reading more from Jill Jones.

--Bev Hill

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