Volume 91, Issue 67

Wednesday, January 28, 1998



"Scientific" tales turned literature

The Island of the Colorblind
Oliver Sacks
Vintage Canada
$16.95/311 pps.

The Island of the Colorblind is Oliver Sacks' latest novel, falling into the scientific literature category for which he is prominently known. As a neurologist, Sacks has made a literary career with novels attempting to twine his general knowledge of science and of neurological conditions in particular, with a storyline. The success with which he does so, however, is questionable.

Perhaps the problem is inherent in bringing together the two fields of study into one aesthetic object. The flow of the plot is limited by Sacks' constant need to infuse scientific facts because their placement appears precarious and sometimes forced. The end result reads like a public school text where the learning material is superficial and sugar-coated. Though not wholly boring, The Island of the Colorblind fails to be a fantastic story of voyage and comes up short in presenting cumulative scientific knowledge. Littered with many quotations by Darwin, Stevenson and other famous travellers which may inspire the reader to explore other texts. You may finish the book feeling a bit more informed, but you will not be able to deceive yourself into believing this knowledge is anything more than incomplete fact-bites.

The actual text of The Island of the Colorblind is two separate and complete stories, each comprising half of the book. The stories are based on two separate journeys Oliver Sacks made to the islands of Micronesia and are largely, if not entirely, autobiographical. As such, the stories consist mainly of descriptive passages. Along with limited dialogue, the style does not lend itself to effective character development. The characters appear simplistic and the conversations are juvenile.

The author's minimal treatment of the social conditions in Micronesia is also questionable. The effects of the occupation of islands in the past and at the present are dealt with in a manner lacking concern and sympathy. The author could have commented on some important issues, but instead chose to gloss over the items with causality unbefitting a medical doctor.

Oliver Sacks sits by the fireplace and recounts, like a frequent traveller with an arm-load of slides, two trips he has taken. But the real question is – does anyone really want to listen?

–Nick Burdan

To Contact The Arts and Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998