For centuries … the rocky, whale-shaped islet was known to people on both sides of the Forth as Plague Island: a place to be avoided, a place of ghosts and demons and eerie, whispering winds. – Brendan Gisby, The Island of Whispers
Just as any new book involving a teenager inevitably gets lumbered with the epithet ‘Catcher in the Rye for the MTV/YouTube/Twitter generation’ the same goes for any book that revolves around anthropomorphic animals. It ends up being ‘Watership Down with mice or cats or, as in the case of Brendan Gisby’s novel The Island of Whispers, rats’. This doesn’t do the book any favours because Watership Down is a classic, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1972 and is, quite simply, a hard act to follow. It really is setting a book up to fail and many (not that there have been that many), like Aeron Clements’s The Cold Moons (Watership Down with badgers), have suffered because of the comparison. And we do like to compare things.
To be fair one shouldn’t feel especially guilty about comparing The Island of Whispers with Watership Down because, as Brendan writes:
I began to write the book shortly after attending the centenary celebrations of the Forth Bridge in 1990, when I had some time on my hands. I wanted to produce something which could be compared with Watership Down, but which would be set in my own territory.
It would employ the same basic ingredients: an oppressive animal society, a few courageous individuals willing to risk all to escape the oppression, the escape itself followed by a chase, and the happy ending of a new society being forged. But it would be an adventure story, pure and simple; nothing more, nothing deeper. And it would not be anything that purported to rival Watership Down.
The Forth Bridge celebration © Gordon Stacks, October 1990
His ‘own territory’ is the Firth of Forth which is not, as one Goodreads reviewer thought, in the north of England; we Scots are a bit sensitive about stuff like that. The $64,000 question is: Does The Island of Whispers hold its own? Let’s compare it with three others:
Watership Down (1972) follows the lives of a group of rabbits as they leave their endangered warren in search of a safe new home. They travel across the English countryside, braving perilous danger, until they find a hill called Watership Down, where they begin a new warren. However, they are endangered by another warren, Efrafa, which is led by the authoritarian General Woundwort, and they are soon forced to defend their home and lives.
The Animals of Farthing Wood (1979) begins in the fictional Farthing Wood, which is being destroyed to make way for the building of human homes. The book follows the adventures of a group of animals who choose to leave their home in Farthing Wood and journey to White Deer Park, a fictional nature reserve.
The Cold Moons (1989) is a tale of the badgers of Cilgwyn who are faced with a choice of staying in the valley they have inhabited for a generations or embarking on a journey to find their Watership Down which is called Elysia. Some make it, some don't.
The Island of Whispers (2009) is set on a small island in the Firth of Forth. The only inhabitants are a colony of rats and their society is a totalitarian one. Seeing things for what they truly are a young rat decides to arrange for a small party to escape to the mainland and search for a new home where they can start afresh. An abandoned quarry turns out to be where they feel safe enough to establish their new society.
See a bit of a pattern there? There’s much of a muchness about all these books. They’re all basically The Incredible Journey: animals face a predicament (usually because of something Man’s done or intends to do) and have to take a dangerous and arduous journey in order to reach safety. That said Shelia Burnford chose not to anthropomorphise her animals (unlike Disney’s decision in 1993 remake, probably trying to cash in on the ‘success’ of the Look Who's Talking franchise). In the classic quest narrative structure the hero normally aims to obtain something or someone and then return home with this object intact. Often enough though they choose not to return or there’s nothing to left return to as is the case in the five books listed above. The original Duncton Wood (that would be Watership Down with moles) is a little different in that it’s actually a love story at its core although the sequel Duncton Quest was … well the title says it all.
Derivative isn’t necessarily bad. Often, to be fair, it is and some books are harder acts to follow than others. The trick is usually to put a spin on the original (e.g. West Side Story is basically Romeo and Juliet with songs and Warm Bodies is Romeo and Juliet with zombies); simply replacing rabbits with guineafowl isn’t necessarily going to cut it, though. Here’s the setting for Brendan’s book:
The rocky, whale-shaped islet which lies in the shadow of the Forth Railway Bridge is called Inchgarvie. Nowadays, the only creatures which live on the island are the seabirds on its eastern side and the huge colony of rats deep below the crumbling monastery on its western side. The colony has evolved over hundreds of years. Originally consisting of native black rats, it was conquered by much larger brown rats from a passing foreign ship. The native rats, or Scavengers, were enslaved. Over time, careful interbreeding produced a race of strong, black-furred warriors to protect, feed and keep watch for the brown rats. Thus evolved the colony’s present society: the Inner Circle of Rulers and the Outer Circle of Protectors, Hunters and Watchers. Presiding over the society is its ancient Chamberlain, Long Snout. – taken from a long synopsis which you can find here but only read it if you don’t mind spoilers
In many respects what we have here is a dystopian setting. The island is a microcosm. It is uninhabited by men—specifically religious men (bear in mind that in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four there is no religion bar Big Brother)—and there’s also evidence of a great war sometime in the past—a concrete gun emplacement also lies neglected.
The rats although they have the run of the island are a particularly insular bunch and most never venture outside their lair:
‘Comrades of the Dark World! The society created by our forefathers has endured many hardships through many generations. Yet it has survived—and it has prospered. It has survived because we are a disciplined society and because we are ever-vigilant. Yes, discipline and vigilance: these are the rules which govern our every way.
This is the Chamberlain addressing an Assembly of rats. He continues:
‘Comrades, our secret world remains hidden from the marauding Two-Legs because our lives are disciplined. Our presence on the world above is controlled carefully, kept to only a few Hunters and slaves each time—and always when darkness covers the land. Our time here in the underworld is spent in comfort. We do not allow our numbers to overrun the lairs. Unlike the Scavengers, who couple incessantly, we mate only during the Cold Cycle. The Selection also rids us of the weak and useless among our broods, keeping our society strong and able.
‘In the same way,’ continued Long Snout, ‘our sources of food are managed carefully.’
This is not so dissimilar to:
His sexual life, for example, was entirely regulated by the two Newspeak words sexcrime (sexual immorality) and goodsex (chastity). Sexcrime covered all sexual misdeeds whatever. It covered fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and other perversions, and, in addition, normal intercourse practised for its own sake.
He knew what was meant by goodsex—that is to say, normal intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children, and without physical pleasure on the part of the woman: all else was sexcrime. – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Orwell’s society also has issues with food: The Inner Party gets luxury goods—coffee, real sugar, jam—Outer Party members and the proles struggle through various shortages. It’s the same with the rats: the brown rats get to eat gulls, the rest… well, I’ll let the Chamberlain tell you:
‘Warriors of the Outer Circle!’ cried Long Snout. ‘Your source of food is also plentiful and controlled with care. The Scavengers are the slaves of our society. They carry for us and dig for us. They are also your sustenance. We allow them to breed freely and to infest their lair. They devour each other to still their hunger. But those who survive are strong and well-fed, their flesh well able to satisfy your own appetites.
Cannibalism is, of course, a common trope in dystopian science fiction most famously Soylent Green.
In an e-mail Brendan told me:
I needed to give my rat colony a history and a structure. My research, for what it was worth, revealed that black rats were indigenous and quite small and that brown rats probably originated elsewhere in Europe and were much bigger. Both types could have reached the island from passing ships. I had it that the brown rats subjugated and enslaved the black rats and then mated with them to produce a half-breed race loyal to their brown masters. Whether such mating could ever occur in reality didn't really matter, because the story was a fantasy. The same applied to the island's ecosystem … and to things like the life-cycle of a rat. What mattered to me was the story itself and the characters within it.
I planned out the structure of the society very carefully. If the structure was influenced by Nineteen Eighty-Four, it must have been subconsciously, because I don't remember thinking about that book at all—or about Animal Farm for that matter. Again, readers and reviewers have made those comparisons—not the author!
The Chamberlain is not the leader of the rats. That is White Muzzle, the King-rat, who we hear little of and nothing from—in that respect he is most like Big Brother, seen but not heard. Long Snout is more like O’Brien. Our Winston (or our Hazel if you’re still looking for connections to Watership Down) is Twisted Foot, named after a deformity that was overlooked during a cull allowing him time to prove his worth as a Watcher. There is no Julia. There are does of course (although they refer to them as she-rats) but they have little presence in the book and Brendan’s only defence there is that if he were writing the book now he would be less chauvinistic. The only significant event involving a female is the multiple rape of Grey Eyes. It’s not graphically described but a rape is a rape and this was one of the criticisms levelled against Watership Down when it first came out: these were not cute, fluffy bunnies:
"I'll kill him," gasped a low, choking voice behind them. They all leaped round. Bigwig had raised his head and was supporting himself on his forepaws alone. His body was twisted and his hind parts and back legs still lay along the ground. His eyes were open, but his face was such a fearful mask of blood, foam, vomit and earth that he looked more like some demon creature than a rabbit. The immediate sight of him, which should have filled them with relief and joy, brought only terror. They cringed away and none said a word. – Richard Adams, Watership Down
The Duncton Wood novels also have a similar reputation for springing gore and unpleasantness on the reader:
The first that came to him he hardly seemed to touch, yet down he fell, not only dead but torn to death; the second died of a talon thrust so powerful that it seemed to start at his snout and end at his tail; the third turned to run even before he attacked, but too late. A mighty lunge from Mandrake caught him too, and he lay screaming, his black fur savaged open, red blood glistening. And as Mandrake passed by, he coldly crashed his snout and left him there arced out in a bloody, searing, ruthless death. Then they backed before him this way and that, chattering in fear, running away, taking to surface routes in their fright. – William Horwood, Duncton Wood
Well, rats never had the best of standings to begin with—although they’re not always presented as evil creatures (e.g. Roland Rat and Remy from Ratatouille)—and so what would we expect them to behave like? This is a violent world. There is no legal system. There is no religious order. This a single-party state and there is only the party line. Those who don’t toe it pay:
The scenes were blurred, frightening: Long Snout towering over the clearing, the blood of newly born young congealed on his enormous fangs; Neck-Snapper hissing and spitting death, green pus festering in his ragged eyehole; Grey Eyes surrounded by snarling Protectors, her small body lacerated and bleeding. The images of light and darkness vied with each other, struggling for dominance, like a battle between good and evil. – Brendan Gisby, The Island of Whispers
In the beginning of chapter seven of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we learn that the proles make up 85% of the population of Oceania, and according to Winston, if they could only be made aware of their power, they could overthrow the party. In pre-revolutionary France the Third Estates encompassed 97% of the population and in Russia before the Revolution the Peasants accounted for about 95%. If the party controls the weapons—be they guns or teeth, claws and a bad attitude—and the stream of information it should be no problem controlling the masses. Much the same is true of the Scavengers in The Island of Whispers—although the difference isn’t as profound—only in some respects it’s even worse for them because they’re segregated from the rest of the rats and kept oblivious to what’s going on. They’ve been imprisoned for so long they don’t even realise there is another world topside.
Dreams feature is all three books. Winston Smith dreams of the Golden Country, a pastoral setting, a sort of paradise. A young woman strips. Her actions indicate she has cast the Party’s control aside. This is likely a twofold imagine. It’s probably a place he remembers from his childhood but it may also foreshadow the defeat of the Party, meeting and falling in love with Julia, and the clothes are the Party restrictions they cast aside.
In Watership Down Fiver has a dream which he relates to Hazel:
"Oh, Hazel! I was dreaming. It was dreadful. You were there. We were sitting on water, going down a great, deep stream, and then I realized we were on a board--like that board in the field--all white and covered with black lines. There were other rabbits there--bucks and does. But when I looked down, I saw the board was all made of bones and wire; and I screamed and you said, 'Swim--everybody swim'; and then I was looking for you everywhere and trying to drag you out of a hole in the bank. I found you, but you said, 'The Chief Rabbit must go alone,' and you floated away down a dark tunnel of water."
"Well, you've hurt my ribs, anyway. Tunnel of water indeed! What rubbish! Can we go back to sleep now?"
"Hazel--the danger, the bad thing. It hasn't gone away. It's here--all round us. Don't tell me to forget about it and go to sleep. We've got to go away before it's too late."
In The Island of Whispers Twisted Foot also has dreams:
The dreams kept waking Twisted Foot. At first, there were bright, sharp images of a clearing among the trees. He didn’t know where the clearing was, only that it was far away, deep in the woodlands. The sun was shining. They were basking in its warmth. Grey Eyes was there; and young Soft-Mover, his jet-black coat glistening as he moved through the tall grass. Fat One was dozing under a tree. His other companions were in the clearing with their mates and young ones. There was an aura about the place, a deep glow of happiness. It seemed that if he reached out from his dream he could touch the glow, let the warmth course through him.
The nudge to consider escape as an option comes—as with Hazel—from a third party, in this case Long Ears who realises he’s not a natural leader—“I am too weak, too afraid”—but he can see that Twisted Foot has the necessary cunning, courage and intelligence and, especially after learning of the rape of his mate, the incentive. The question is: Will they succeed and if so at what cost?
The dreams are the only thing here that could be considered a fantasy element but since they were preceded by Long Ears’s proposal I’m happy to take them as simply dreams and not read into them unlike the prophetic dreams in Watership Down or Fire Bringer (Watership Down with deer). I found the lack of a belief system a little harder to accept—religion has always proven a most effective way of keeping folk (especially simple folk) in their place. If the sun suddenly became a sun god (as Frith is to the rabbits) and there was always the threat of being burned alive wouldn’t that prove an excellent deterrent and keep the rats in their place? There’s also no mythology attached to Man. In Tailchaser’s Song (Watership Down with cats) the cats view "M'an" as a race of deformed descendants of cats which I thought was an interesting notion. Again, as with everything else, the rats show little imagination: the Two-Legs are what the Two-Legs do and no one seems at all interested in their motives.
Books like Watership Down and Duncton Wood stand apart from fantasy works like Redwall (where the mice fight with swords) in that they aim to be as realistic as possible when presenting the characteristics and behavioural patterns of the animals in question and both of these books succeed in that respect. Adams's descriptions of wild rabbit behaviour were based on The Private Life of the Rabbit (1964), by British naturalist Ronald Lockley. Horwood has also been commended for his research. Brendan has clearly done some research but decided not to stick rigorously to the facts—e.g. rats in the wild rarely survive more than a year to eighteen months so what would ‘old’ be to a rat?—and treats the rats, in some respects, like little humans. Which works—it’s not a flaw; it’s a creative decision and most readers won’t think twice about it.
Brendan’s goal was to write “an adventure story, pure and simple; nothing more, nothing deeper” and he has achieved that. If that’s all you’re looking for in a book then buy a copy of this right away; you will not be disappointed. I, however, was disappointed because there was the potential here for more. He completed the first three parts quite quickly, but had to stop at that point because of business commitments and it was not until 2009, almost twenty years later, that he picked up the manuscript again and completed the final two parts. Here was an opportunity to reach for the stars and one that was missed. Part of me understands because when I came to edit my first two novels ten years after they were first written I chose to keep them as a record of the man I was then rather than try to make them into something else so it would be hypocritical to make too much of the fact Brendan’s novel falls short of some imaginary mark. It has exceeded his goal anyway. It’s not simple “an adventure story”. It’s thought-provoking and certainly a good book for teenagers who might balk at reading most of the other books mentioned above for various different reasons. That said the title is not exciting nor is the current cover. An earlier version sported a rat on the cover and I thought that was better; the current cover looks more like a travel guide.
You can read four excerpts from the book online:
It’s available both as an ebook and as a paperback.