North & South Magazine May 2021

Book review by Paul Little.

Sensuously produced, with its orange linen cover and elegant proportions, this is a one-of-a-kind production from every angle. In a publishing environment where approved styles are the norm, any work of fiction that tells its story outside the traditional narrative forms is to be welcomed. Birch’s labour of love succeeds magnificently in achieving this goal. The book is an “atlas” of 21 islands, each named for a colour, presented in alphabetical order from alabaster to violet. 

It's “experimental”, but that does not mean undisciplined. In fact, it means quite the opposite, with a steely control exercised over every aspect of the book, from that cover to the strict format of the chapters. Each island has four pages devoted to it: one page is a full-page panel of the relevant colour (chartreuse, be warned, is not for the faint-hearted), one page carries the island’s name, one has a short piece of prose describing it and its features, and one page shows a map of the island with insets of flora and fauna. The colours are not standard hues: no red, blue or yellow, but gentian, madder and vermilion. (If you’ve never been sure exactly what gentian or madder are, this is the book for you.)

It's the combination of elements that make it such a satisfying whole. And they are helped along by a deadpan humour: Cobalt Island, for instance, is literally a concrete jungle beneath which life manages to survive. For some islands, we are given very few details, while others have complex histories.

Birch’s influences and antecedents are not hard to find: Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, even John Mandeville’s 14th-century Travels cast their shadows. Ultimately, this is a book that transcends predecessors and even genres, although it draws on many. It is at one and the same time an atlas, graphic novel, prose poem, parody, and collection of fables.