Exiles: Three Island Journeys by William Atkins

Review by Karen Langley

In our turbulent modern world, the concept of exile is never far away from the headlines. Wars and religious conflicts constantly cause human beings to be displaced from their native land; yet the much-vaunted global village, predicted in the past, seems in some ways farther away than ever as borders harden and it becomes more difficult to find a refuge and safe place. A new book, Exiles by William Atkins, explores the concept behind the word of its title by looking at the lives and experiences of three different historical figures who were exiled to remote islands, and it’s a fascinating read.

Atkins has previously written on travel and landscape (see here), as well as contributing journalism and reviews to a number of publications. As he’s revealed, the genesis of Exiles came from a pile of empty rucksacks he saw in the Arizona desert, abandoned by migrants. The thoughts of the displacement of those people spurred him on to explore the three lives mentioned above: those of Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, a Zulu king who was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic; Louise Michel, a French radical of the Commune, who was shipped off to New Caledonia in the South Pacific; and Lev Sternberg, a Ukrainian revolutionary who was sent to the notorious Sakhalin, off the coast of Siberia. Each individual’s story is fascinating, and there are perhaps unexpected resonances between their tales of political exile.  

As well as just writing about their stories of displacement, Atkins decides to visit each island himself so as to really comprehend the setting and environment into which each deportee was placed. Not only could he gain a deeper understanding of their lives, but he could also explore the effects on the locations of being a place of exile. The result is an intriguing book which takes in notions of nationality, empire, family and belonging.

Atkins structures his book by splitting it into three sections, dealing with the time leading up to banishment, the actual period on the island, and the final fate of each exile. Interspersed with these histories are Atkins’ own travels, his adventures on the islands and his own personal sense of exile, being absent from family while his father is very unwell. This structure keeps the story interesting, and allows the reader to compare the three subjects’ differing experiences, as their response to their situation varied. Michel, of course, threw herself into activity, teaching and writing. Dinuzulu, being a king, perhaps struggled more; he westernised in many ways, but was a rallying figure for anti-colonial forces and his life can’t have been easy. Shternberg also lost himself in work, spending his time on Sakhalin establishing a form of long-term ethnographical fieldwork which was groundbreaking and left a major legacy. We all have our coping mechanisms, and the three exiles found their own way to deal with isolation. 

It’s fair to say that none of the three subjects of Exiles ever really recovered from their banishment. Despite returning to their homelands, their periods away marked them forever. Each of them gained from the experience, whether it was Michel’s teaching or Sternberg’s ethnographic studies; however they were irrevocably changed, not only from being wrenched from their homeland, but also from the extreme isolation of the distant landscapes into which they were flung. Their returns to their own countries weren’t really that successful, and I did end up thinking they might actually have been happier if they’d stayed in their new worlds.

Running through much of this story is the rather unpleasant political structure of the nations in which the exiles lived; in particularly, Dinuzulu’s story explores in detail the vile effects of empire and colonialism, and left me wondering why it is that some human beings think they have the right to take over other people’s lands and resources, and just exploit them. Similarly, Michel and Sternberg were subject to regimes which exercised strong controls over their people, against which it was not permitted to rebel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the modern world has learned much from the past, as we live in times when citizens’ freedoms are once more becoming restricted.

Exiles is a fascinating read from start to finish; Atkins’ own travels are quite an eye-opener, particularly when you see how extreme some of the conditions still are, all those decades after the islands concerned have ceased to be places of exile. He’s an enterprising traveller to say the least. And underlying the story is a sense of just how important our homes and place of origin really are to us; even if you’ve chosen to move location voluntarily, the longing for your homeland is still there (I miss my birth city of Edinburgh, and I left there when I was six). So being forcibly torn from your homeland and deposited in an inhospitable location is obviously a real punishment. Exiles is a timely and powerful read which blends history, travel and an exploration of the concept of displacement – highly recommended.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings would be happy to be sent to a remote island as long as there were plenty of books…

William Atkins, Exiles: Three Island Journeys (Faber & Faber, 2022). 978-0571352982. 320pp, hardback.

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