The Island by M.A. Bennett
From Goodreads: Link is a fish out of water. Newly arrived from America, he is finding it hard to settle into the venerable and prestigious Osney School. Who knew there could be so many strange traditions to understand? And what kind of school ranks its students by how fast they can run round the school quad – however ancient that quad may be? When Link runs the slowest time in years, he immediately becomes the butt of every school joke. And some students are determined to make his life more miserable than others . . .
When a school summer trip is offered, Link can think of nothing worse than spending voluntary time with his worst tormentors. But when his parents say he can only leave Osney School – forever – if he goes on the trip, Link decides to endure it for the ultimate prize. But this particular trip will require a very special sort of endurance. The saying goes ‘No man is an island’ – but what if on that island is a group of teenagers, none of whom particularly like each other? When oppressive heat, hunger and thirst start to bite, everyone’s true colours will be revealed. Let the battle commence . . .
I have to admit, going into this book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Last year, I read S.T.A.G.S. and although some of it was pretty good, I disliked the ending a LOT. So when this book was released early at YALC, I bought a copy, thinking I’d give the author another go.
It’s kinda one of those times when you meet a lovely author, get a book signed and then you feel really bad posting a negative review. Because unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy much about this book. And I should point out here that M.A. Bennett is lovely, and I know lots of people enjoy her books and I think that’s cool, but I’m starting to wonder if they’re for me.
There’s actually a lot I want to talk about here, and I don’t feel like I can do that in a spoiler free review, so I’m going to do the thing where the first part is spoiler free, and the second has spoilers. I’ll let you know when to click away if you haven’t already read the book.
So my first qualm with this novel is the whole stereotype thing. Link is a stereotype geek, he likes gaming, he hates sports, he likes to wear nerdy glasses even though he can see almost perfectly on his own, he likes to read classics, he spends all his time hanging out with his parents because he can’t socially interact with people, and he struggles to make friends. All of which is a touch cringy to me, since there’s nothing really to his character except very obvious nerdiness. But more than that is his general attitude towards others. Whether it’s because he’s been bullied or not, his typical thought at spotting an athlete is to call them a ‘dumb jock.’ Because obviously, anyone who does sports must have a low IQ.
Speaking of which, Loam. Oh god, Loam. I’ve never seen such a typical villain in a high school story before. He’s the lead jock, and he’s good looking and he’s a mean bully and he’s… not very smart. At all. Which again, is just a bit eye-roll worthy. I could have done with development of these characters, and actual depth to them. But it seems like the author has just kind of picked a stereotype and then made it into a character. I don’t know if this is a deliberate choice or not, since there are some nods towards parody there, but it just felt flat to me. I didn’t care about Link, because he was just not a character to me.
Other characters also stuck out like a sore thumb. We have the try too hard Asian student stereotype, who is being tugged by pushy parents between violin and tennis. We have the hot cheerleader girl who just wants to be with the most popular guy[more on that later], and the rich boy who pretends to be a gangster and goes around possibly pretending to/actually dealing drugs [the book doesn’t make this very clear] to students while hanging out in the ‘rough’ parts of the city. The only character who actually had depth outside of a stereotype was Flora, and it doesn’t bode well for me that I’ve just spent five minutes trying to remember her name. Flora is portrayed as an emo. She’s a little ‘chubby’ as Link explains [again, more of this later] but kinda pretty, and she eventually reveals that she has more depth to her, because she picks non-emo songs for her Desert Island Discs. Like, seriously? Her whole non-emo character development is that she doesn’t like Fall Out Boy and MCR?
The whole beginning of the book is pretty dull, and although there are some moments when it is just possible to sympathise with Link, I also felt like his angry sputtering reaction was making me dislike him. Every time he gets teased or messed around on, he responds by doing the ‘wi-fi forehead’ [aka, trying not to cry] and reminding himself that he’s better than the bullies because he’s smart and they’re stupid. Sometimes this is done in a kind of subtle way, like when he points out to the readers how ridiculous it is to be simultaneously called ‘gay’ and a ‘girl-stalker.’ But even so, he definitely made me wince a lot. The most cringe-worthy of all is when he calls Loam a ‘sockdologiser’ as if Loam knows what that is or cares. It’s an insult designed to show us how unhappy Link is, and how out of touch he is with society. It works but wow. I’m not trying to victim shame here or anything, but Bennett makes her main character so out of touch with the rest of his school that [although I absolutely don’t condone bullying] my younger self can see why he would make such an obvious target for people like Loam.
The last big problem I had with this book [at least as far as no spoilers go] was the whole colloquial language thing. The book is packed with phrases like ‘ya know?,’ ‘what’s up, my G?’ ‘cuz,’ ‘fam,’ ‘FOMO,’ and ‘bruv.’ Turk, who is usually responsible for saying most of these phrases, does so on EVERY line of his dialogue. Even Link tends to slip into ‘ya know’ even when he’s just narrating. It really made me cringe. At one point, Alex picked up this book, read a line of it, and put it down with a scowl. It just seemed kind of patronising, to have a YA book filled with characters who talk like that all the time and are constantly called dumb at the same time. I’m guessing it was meant to be edgy, but it comes off like a mum saying these words to you, not cool. Especially since, I’m sure, between the time Bennett started writing this book and the time the book was published, there’s probably a dozen other new words and the ones here are mostly redundant. So too with all the ‘hip’ mentions of contemporary bands and video games that are packed into this, all with such detailed descriptions of what they are. Again, it’s fine to mention Fortnite once in a while if you’re showing off your character’s interests, but the description of games sometimes came off almost as if the author was proudly displaying her knowledge of the games, rather than actually trying to use the references in a genuine nod to culture.
The bit about the book that I did like was the initial bit where they go to the island and have to deal with life on there. There are some really great moments there where there’s some psychological issues going on and groups forming and survival issues popping up like mushrooms. I initially liked seeing how Link changed as a person on the island, although later I really disliked this.
NOW ON TO THE SPOILERS. PLEASE CLICK AWAY IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED.
So, The Island…
The biggest thing I can say here is that the whole plot goes south about halfway through. Although Loam is shown repeatedly to be a ‘dumb jock’ he somehow manages to get into a big psychological war with Link, who is meant to be super smart, and actually holds his own. For instance, he knows that Link has named parts of the island, and wants those things to be referred to by those names. Instead, he deliberately rebels against this. He also does things like take Link’s staff, which he views as a sign of his leadership. It’s pretty OOC and doesn’t sit right for me. There’s also the whole thing with Turk suddenly dropping his whole gangster thing at the drop of a hat because Link tells him to. Sure, he’s afraid of Link at this point, but really?
Significantly too, the plot twists are utterly predictable. I knew as soon as the students mention that they’ve all arrived with no shoes and Flora has no nose ring. She even points out how it couldn’t have just fallen out. The whole lack of pilot was also very unsubtle. If the name of the summer school is to do with survival skills, and then a bunch of students get into a very suspicious plane crash and wind up in a survival situation, it’s pretty clear where it’s going. Even more than that, the final twist that Link’s parents are behind it was also very easy to guess. He stresses so much at the start that they are behavioural psychology professors, and they’re weirdly keen for him to go on this trip, despite the fact that he’s obviously being bullied. I can’t believe it takes Link, the oh so clever guy, so long to realize his own parents are responsible. I get maybe not being certain about it, or not trusting that your own parents could possibly be so manipulative, but to not even bring it up as a possibility?
He’s also weirdly okay with them doing this to him. Like yeah, he gets a little bit mad, but he forgives them very quickly and then just pretends like his parents sending him to a remote island with a bunch of people who bullied him and letting him believe he was stuck there for however long is no big deal. Again, this just seems so beyond the realms of possibility. He LITERALLY beat a goat to death, pretending it was his bullies. This is clearly not a guy who should be cool with his parents pushing him into a situation where he deals with this.
His parents also seem very forgiving of him, and a lot of his really shitty behaviour is just brushed away. He’s treated like a toddler who draws on the wall with a crayon. And again, yeah, Link shows remorse, but the stuff that he does is so reprehensible and clearly should be addressed by therapy or something. Which brings me to what I want to discuss: Link’s treatment of girls. In the part of the novel set at Osney, he already starts to show some problematic views towards girls. He calls Flora ‘plumpish’ but ‘pretty.’ This might not seem like a big deal, but he spends so much time chasing after Miranda because she’s conventionally attractive and then later in the book he only starts to look at Flora in a romantic way because he starves her into being skinny to the point where she looks like a clone of Miranda. That is so messed up [on top of the fact that four days of little food would be very unlikely to turn a ‘plumpish’ girl to skin and bones]. On top of that, he constantly calls Flora a problem on the island because she stands up for herself, while Miranda is touted as the ideal because she follows orders and appears to have little agency. On the one hand, he is bullied by girls like Miranda and Li, and yet the way Link looks at girls while at Osney is kinda creepy.
There’s a touch of incel like logic at play here that I find deeply problematic: he argues that he is ‘doesn’t look exactly like everyone else’ and that he gives off a nerd vibe. Because he’s not good at socialising and he isn’t sporty or conventionally attractive, he claims he can’t attract girls. However, it should be stressed that he then goes around getting annoyed because it’s always guys like Loam who get the girl. When Link has a chance to spend time with girls and get to know them and get them to see the error of their ways with the bullying, he instead decides to treat them like slaves and inferiors, and overly sexualises them. Essentially, he is an incel here, and Miranda, the pretty girl, is a Stacy. In incel culture [and it makes me wince to know that I’ve just googled it to double check I’m right] women are seen as shallow, vapid, stupid and evil. Link automatically assumes that Miranda must listen to ‘pointless and generic’ pop music like Justin Beiber, because again, this is linked to the idea of people who like popular things are dumb. She’s only once portrayed as smart and independent, and that is when she saves Turk’s life.
And then there’s the whole thing he does with the skirt. Oh god. So there’s this ‘Amazing Skirt’ that Miranda wears, which is short and tight and reveals a lot of thigh. Once Link gains control of the island, he forces one girl each night to serve him his meal while wearing the sexy skirt and then perform for him. This performance is often uncomfortable for the performer. He forces Miranda to synchronise swim for him so he can stare at her legs, despite it not being her sport. He forces Li to play the violin, despite them initially bonding on the island over how much she hates the instrument. He demands Flora sings for him, even though she is unhappy about it. It’s meant to be demeaning, a way of punishing them for bullying him, and yet because of the skirt it is done in a sexualised way. With Miranda and Li they even become competitive over getting Link’s attention and are upset when he asks Flora to come so he can, in what are almost his words ‘sample every girl on the island.’ He’s got them tamed. And it’s just really gross. Thankfully, when Miranda begs Link to sleep with her he doesn’t actually go through with it, and that’s probably the only thing that stopped me hurling the book across the room and DNFing it. He does feel bad about it, just as he feels bad about almost starving Flora to death
Last but not least, we had the totally pointless and ridiculous epilogue. Link becomes President of the USA because y’know he learned his lesson about how he’s clearly power hungry on the island and goes on to BECOME THE PRESIDENT OF THE MOST POWERFUL COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. Also, he does this because his parents suggest he is capable of being a President right at the start of the book, and obviously in his mind they’re not doing it to be nice to their son but to tell him he should do it, and who is Link to say no to his old folks? He also marries Flora, and goes on to tell us, in excruciating detail, how everyone on the island met predictions. Loam goes into rugby and then politics, Miranda dates him for a bit and then goes into I’m a Celebrity… after a sex-scandal, Li plays violin in concert halls, Ralph becomes a doctor, and Egan becomes Loam’s right hand man in politics and then his secret lover after he comes out to him. It’s just all so damn predictable. Six of the seven people on the island become exactly what we’d expect them to be. They’re frozen at high school. And honestly, how many people do you know from your old school who are the exact same people now as they were at 15? Probably very few of them.
Wow, that was a super long rant. Overall, I’m giving The Island a 2/10 stars. The bit where Loam and Link are fighting to gain control on the island is interesting, but there wasn’t enough of it. For a book pitched as a YA Lord of the Flies, it touches nowhere close to the original. Furthermore, there are some really problematic issues in the book which are barely addressed and are eventually brushed under the carpet like they weren’t that big of a deal.
Has anyone else read this book and agrees or disagrees with my review? Or has anyone got it on their TBR? I’d love to know what you guys think in the thoughts and comments section. Please remember to play nice though. These were my honest thoughts and feelings about the book and they’re not meant as a personal attack on the author and/or readers who enjoyed this book.