The Most Incredible Story I’ve Ever Read

I seem to live in expansive statements and superlatives. They make me happy but the sane people around me know that my statements reveal how many details I forget.

“This is the best salad I’ve ever had.” Because right now I’m so hungry and the table is set so prettily I forget all the other salads that have been wonderful.

“Did you ever see a cuter child?” Because at the moment these twinkly eyes and squishy cheeks are the only ones that exist.

So I know this is a pattern of my words, and it’s not always wise and I probably shouldn’t always use so many superlatives.

Even so, I want to say that Island of the World by Michael O’Brien is the most moving book I’ve ever read. Really. Honestly. It doesn’t feel right to call it a novel because it’s so real. The character followed me around town and at work. I would talk with my English students and his words and ethos were in the room with us. Does that sound spooky? It’s a powerful book. The most powerful story I’ve read. Ever.

It is set in Croatia in wars and ethnic cleansing of the 80’s. Since I live in Poland, I enjoyed the Croatian words and names that are similar to Polish. Josip is the main character, and it follows his life from boyhood to death.

It could be comparable to Les Miserables with its epic scope and its grace-filled, super-strong main character. It’s never fluffy or trite or sentimental. It’s not an easy read and it takes a certain level of emotional stability to absorb it. Many times I had to put it down and close my eyes and breathe “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” There were several pages I couldn’t read because there was too much sadness and blood. There were pages where I cried and cried, and later still felt all choked up. (I cry fairly easily but not over books!)

And yet. There was incredible strength of character that invited me back to witness redemption. There was peace and joy on a deep, supernatural level that was more real than any thing peripheral. Now that I’m finished, I find myself wandering around, not being able to settle down with any book. Everything else is pale and insipid.

Isn’t it a basic truth that we are brought to prayer only by passing through suffering? In this respect, the war was a blessing because it taught this generation how to pray, and it taught us the power of prayer. We learned that it was prayer that preserved us through impossible odds and only prayer that brought us independence. Dare I write these words–O God, how dare I write them?–yet I cannot be silent. The war was a catastrophe, but in Christ the worst catastrophe can be transformed into a blessing. –Josip, in a letter to Slavica



9 thoughts on “The Most Incredible Story I’ve Ever Read

  1. I do that superlative thing too. I try to forget in the moment that I might possibly have called another salad or cake or child the best ever… We’ll just call it a mark of being childlike, hopefully in the best possible way. 🙂

    Island of the World IS an amazing story! I remember thinking as I read it (and afterwards), “I don’t know if I will ever recover from this book.” I’m in the middle of O’Brien’s “A Cry of Stone” right now. One of the things I love best about his writing is the way he captures the cycle of a life–idyllic childhood of exquisite joys, difficulty in adulthood, and then a return to simplicity and joy, a coming full circle in old age.

    Thanks for sharing your book review! Good stuff.

  2. I’m so happy you got a chance to read Island! It’s not a book I recommend lightly, but I can easily say that it was the most powerful book I read in a long time (if not ever). Somehow O’Brien captures the essence of what it means to be human. I think I was particularly struck with the profundity he grants the simple, daily things. Now that I’ve read your reflections here, I think I will have to re-read Island, maybe over winter break:)

  3. I agree, Anita. When I read Island of the World over Thanksgiving break several years ago, it took me weeks to stop living in the story. It is a powerfully profound piece of work, yet un-self-consciously so. You described the power of the book much better than I could or did.

  4. Pingback: Island of the World | wocketinmypocket

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