Book Review: The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne
A Jules Verne Mystery
The Mysterious Island is an exciting tale of mystery and adventure as a group of castaways struggle to overcome the elements and survive on an uncharted island. The novel was written by Jules Verne in 1874. This is an unusual book for Verne because it's more mystery than science fiction.
One thing that was very clear while reading this book is that Jules Verne was a master at telling a story.
Note: This review is of the 2001 English translation by Jordan Stump. Other translations may have differences in wording and names.
"This is the tale of the castaways..."
It's March 1865, the final days of the American Civil War, and five prisoners of war are held captive in Richmond. Desperate to leave the city, they make a daring escape in a hot air balloon during a terrible storm. Carried by the storm's winds for 4 days, the balloon crashes near an island in the South Pacific.
The castaways are stranded on this unknown shore with nothing but the clothes on their backs and each other. Fortunately the island is rich in natural resources they'll need to survive. They name the island after President Lincoln and make it their home until they can find a way off. The castaways even consider themselves colonists who will claim the island for the United States and plan to return to it if they ever get home.
As time goes on the colonists become aware of strange happenings that they cannot explain. Most of these are considered to be the work of Providence. Eventually they begin to realize that they're not alone on the island.
Thoughts About The Book
"...they're here for a long long time."
Reading this book is like playing a game of Civilization in your head. The colonists start with nothing then steadily work their way up the technology tree...pottery, iron, chemistry, gunpowder, etc.
It's an interesting story even though the characters were almost too capable in their skills and got along so well. Verne came really close to crossing the believability line there and it was amusing at times. A couple of the projects they undertake seemed over the top and unnecessary but paid off in the end. The amount of scientific detail was about right for me. The chemistry parts were kind of dry...but chemistry was never my favorite class.
I enjoyed following the colonists as they explored the island and developed their new home. The mystery was engaging and the action really picked up going into the last third of the book.
The ending was good but disappointing. It explained the sources of all the mysteries but gave little info on how they happened. It also breezed through the final fate of the colonists. Given some of the lengthy scientific explanations earlier in the book I expected more detail. Instead, Verne flies through the last five chapters like he's in a hurry to catch a hot air balloon. It really needed more pages.
A strange thing about reading the book was that I found myself humming the tune to Gilligan's Island a lot when I wasn't reading it. I'd think of the book and that tune popped into my head.
This book was written in French over 100 years ago, so I expected the writing style to be different. The most noticeable thing is that Verne hypes up his characters in very dramatic terms. They appear almost superhuman in their personality traits and abilities. Some descriptions are clearly exaggerated beyond belief...the background on Cyrus Smith states that he was a "participant in every battle of" the Civil War. Every single battle?
I don't know if this was common in 19th century writing, or was one of Verne's traits or something lost in translation but the exclamation point is used heavily. Very heavily...in places you wouldn't expect. "'Yes!' he murmured." What? How do you exclaim something said in a murmur? You get used to it after a while and it almost becomes a running joke.
Verne has a very effective narrative style. He engages the reader directly with questions and creates a sense of conversation...like he's sitting across from you telling the tale.
This version of the book also includes the illustrations (over 70) from the original publishings. They're a good supplement to the mental picture you paint of the colonists and their surroundings. The most helpful is the map of Lincoln Island at the front of the book.
Each chapter heading is a list of highlights of what will happen during the chapter. I've never seen this done before. It gives away pieces of the story so I ignored them after the third or fourth chapter.
Meet The Characters
Who was your favorite castaway/colonist?
What I Liked About "The Mysterious Island"
- Masterful story telling that kept my attention and interest throughout the book.
- It was fun to ponder what life would be like stuck on an uncharted island. What decisions would I make at each point in the story? Would I know how to make pottery from scratch? Or even think to try?
- Verne wrote the characters with a very positive and confident yet humble attitude that is inspiring and refreshing.
- Arrr! There be pirates in this story!
Verne is known for his science fiction writing and prediction of future uses for technology. There's a lot of science in this book but it's mostly stuff that would have been known in the 19th century.
About halfway through the book, Verne has the colonists discussing the world eventually exhausting its supply of coal to power modern industry and transportation. Cyrus Smith predicts that "water is the coal of the future" and will be used to power everything. Specifically by using electricity to break water down into its component elements...hydrogen and oxygen which are then used to provide power. He's basically talking about using electrolysis to fuel a hydrogen fuel cell.
Other Jules Verne Novels
Beware of Spoilers!
Don't read the Introduction by Caleb Carr before reading the story. It gives away the biggest mystery of the island. The bio of Jules Verne at the start of the book also gives it away and should be avoided until you've read the book.
I don't know why the publishers opted to spoil the surprise for readers. The piece by Carr could have been moved to the end of the book and they only need to strike one sentence from the Verne bio. They probably assumed everyone is familiar with the story but that's a poor assumption to make. When the title of the book is "The Mysterious Island", it's a bad idea to disclose the key piece of that mystery before the reader actually reads the story.
Unfortunately, I read a summary of the book which gave this away before I read the book. The book was still worth reading but would have been fun to read without that knowledge.
The Translator's Notes by Jordan Stump are safe and kinda interesting to read.
If you don't plan to read the book and want to know the mystery, you can check out Wikipedia's summary.
My Rating of "The Mysterious Island"
I liked this book a lot. The writing style was a little distracting at first but the quality of the story quickly took over.
Comparison to the Survivors of Oceanic 815 on Lost
The colonists of Lincoln Island took much more initiative to understand their surroundings and control their destiny than the Oceanic 815 survivors. This could be because they weren't expecting a rescue party to arrive any day like the Losties were. It could also have to do with the time period...people were more self reliant back in the 19th century.
- Guys, where are we? - Within their first week on Lincoln Island, the colonists climbed to the highest peak of the island to get the lay of the land, look for other inhabitants and determine if any other island was nearby. The Losties still haven't mapped out their island completely (Sayid did try to walk all the way around once) and none of them knew there was another island until the end of Season 3.
- Changes in latitude - The colonists figured out their approximate latitude/longitude coordinates using no instruments. The Losties have never attempted this...maybe because they assume they went down in the Pacific.
- Changes in attitude - The colonists think of themselves as...colonists. Of course they want to get home, but they're determined to make the island their new home until they figure a way off. The Losties are content to chill on the beach and wait to be rescued most of the time.
- Just do it - Lincoln Island offered nearly every raw material the colonists needed. With that they did some amazing things...built an iron forge, made bricks, produced nitroglycerin, grew crops and even built a telegraph line! The Losties built a few wooden shelters on the beach, Michael built a boat and Sun planted a garden but the Losties haven't built much else.
- Teamwork - The Lincoln Island colonists have a lot of respect for one another and very few disagreements. There are some good relationships among the Losties but there's also a lot of drama going on...arguments, gun pointing, distrust, stealing, etc.
Now it's your turn...what did you think of The Mysterious Island? Is this your favorite Jules Verne novel? What connections do you see with the tv show Lost?
Please leave a comment below.