Barr, Emily - 'Stranded'
A 'chick-lit travelogue' with a crime backstory thrown in, this novel is all about Esther Lomax and what happens on her trip to a Malaysian idyll (Paradise Bay in the Perhentian Islands) shortly after her marriage break-up. She has just one daughter called Daisy, aged 10, who is staying with her ex-husband Chris while Esther travels away from home by herself for the first time, as a sort of new beginning after her divorce.
On reaching Paradise Bay, Esther meets a group of several travellers from various backgrounds, including an American couple, having an illicit affair (Mark and Cherry), an older Australian couple (Gene and Jean), the lesbian Katy, and the attractive Scottish man Edward, all of whom accompany Esther on a trip out to a distant and deserted island for Esther's 40th birthday. A trip organised by Katy. But after arriving at the island, Samad, the local man who's taken them to the island on his boat, discovers he's left his lighter behind, and can't light the fire to cook the birthday lunch. As he claims he is using this trip as a practice run for a regular business he plans to start, taking tourists out to the island, he insists on going back for a lighter, saying it will only take an hour. But of course, he doesn't return and the group is stranded on the island, with no means of communication. Is the abandonment deliberate or accidental? And if deliberate, why would someone want to make sure that Esther was trapped on an island for many days, with no means of communicating with her family back in the UK?
Interspersed chapters, which describe the escape of someone called 'Cathy' from 'God's village' some years ago, start to throw up some possibilities for the abandonment of the tourists on the deserted island. It seems that some years ago, Cathy was about to take her GCSE exams and then leave school to be forcibly married to Phillip, another member of the religious sect that lives in God's village. Understandably, she was not keen and hatched a plan to escape, aided by a friend at school not involved in the sect. She was successful in her escape and started to build a new life with a new name. The question is, who is Cathy in the present day, and how is she linked to the story about Esther?
When the travellers are eventually rescued, a horrible truth awaits. It's not hard to guess from the backstory who the present day 'Cathy' must be, or what the horrible truth is likely to be. One could argue that going to the extreme lengths of isolating someone on an island, together with several other people, unrelated to the main plot, to exact some kind of revenge back home in the UK without interference, is perhaps a bit over the top. There are some slightly over lengthy descriptions of life for the stranded tourists on an isolated island, where they nearly die of thirst before eventually finding fresh water and they struggle to find food. The rapidly unfolding events after the rescue, when Esther returns to the UK are somewhat more interesting although I'm not sure why the ending has to be so dramatic. Quibbles aside, this was an enjoyable read, and given its context, certainly one to read on the beach (but maybe a nice UK beach for safety).
Michelle Peckham, England
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