Last year I saw this book recommendation on Tis a Gift to Receive. I checked all the local libraries, but none seem to have heard of Michael O’Brien, so… I bought Island of the World for a Christmas present for myself. 🙂
I told you I have a book review that is the polar opposite of The Hunger Games, but I will also quickly tell you that this is not light reading or suitable for early teens. In fact, it is probably the heaviest book I have read in a long time, quite literally, since it has over 800 pages, but it is also heavy emotionally. I couldn’t shake the story, although I could only bear to read a few pages some days. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I will only give a brief sketch of the events in the story that is actually set over the course of a lifetime.
The book is set in the Balkans with the main character being a boy, Josip Lasta, who is the son of a school teacher in a remote mountain village. The family, as well as the entire village, is rich in simple faith. Josip survives the horrifying purge of his village, stumbling in a grief-stricken daze to war-torn Sarajevo where his aunt lives. As he grows older, he is haunted by the cruelty and bloodshed all around him as the communists take over the country. Eventually there is the promise of a career as a mathematics professor, even though he has never joined the party. There is the love of a beautiful girl, a happy marriage, a child on the way, and then there is the awful concentration camp after he is reported to be a counter revolutionary. There is so much hatred, betrayal, and senseless destruction in Josip’s world.
As I read, my western sensibilities of fairness kept insisting that surely soon everything would get better and be happy. Surely Josip cannot live under these crushing evils. Doesn’t he deserve to be happy? As the book continues to track his lifelong journey of forgiveness and his relentless faith that “God always has the final word”, I became smaller and smaller in my own human reasoning. I marveled at the redemption that seeped out of the brokenness of his life in nearly forty years as a humble janitor, a displaced person, a refugee in the foreign land of America.
“Seldom have I encountered the few who are awake, who cast their gaze to the real foundations, which, as human beings should know, are above.” -Josip Lasta, as he approaches the end of his life.
This is not typical historical fiction. There is a thread of purity woven throughout the very human struggles of a man living through the awfullest of times. I have wanted to write this review for a long time, but found myself floundering for words. When I was reading Hunger Games, I kept thinking of this book, another tale of revolution, war, heartbreak. The contrast between a soul impoverished with vindictiveness and a soul flourishing through forgiveness was so startling that I will never forget it.
You will not regret buying this one!