The Islands

Emily Brugman

The Islands
Allen & Unwin
1 February 2022

The Islands

Emily Brugman

In the mid-1950s, a small group of Finnish migrants set up camp on Little Rat, a tiny island in an archipelago off the coast of Western Australia. The crayfishing industry is in its infancy, and the islands, haunted though they are by past shipwrecks, possess an indefinable allure.

Drawn here by tragedy, Onni Saari is soon hooked by the stark beauty of the landscape and the slivers of jutting coral onto which the crayfishers build their precarious huts. Could these reefs, teeming with the elusive and lucrative cray, hold the key to a good life?

The Islands is the sweeping story of the Saari family: Onni, an industrious and ambitious young man, grappling with the loss of a loved one; his wife Alva, quiet but stoic, seeking a sense of belonging between the ramshackle camps of the islands and the dusty suburban lots of the mainland; and their pensive daughter Hilda, who dreams of becoming the skipper of her own boat. As the Saari’s try to build their future in Australia, their lives entwine with those of the fishing families of Little Rat, in myriad and unexpected ways.

‘A stunning, insightful story of a search for home.'There is an other-worldly quality about the Abrolhos which is beyond the reach of ordinary storytelling. Emily Brugman has captured them, staked them to the page in all their isolation and aridity and scoured indifference, because her storytelling is extraordinary.’ Jock Serong, bestselling author of Preservation

‘Beautiful, fresh, wise and true - startlingly good.’ - Robert Drewe, award-winning author of Whipbird



The Houtman Al Campbell is a Abrolhos is an archipelago of more than a hundred islands and coral reefs flung into the Indian Ocean 80 kilometres out from Geraldton. This wild,forbidding place is the setting of Emily Brugman’s debut novel, where each chapter is a self-contained story which all link up to tell the story of a family of Finnish immigrants who come to live on Little Rat Island in the 1950s. Onni Saari is called from the mainland to search for his brother, a cray fisherman feared drowned, and is smitten by the place. His wife Alva joins him there, and when she gets sent to Geraldton for the birth of their daughter Hilda, cannot wait to return to Little Rat. The severe, tiny island, its exposure to the elements, and the small Finnish community who live there, exert a powerful gravitational pull on this little family, and when they leave it to find work and settle on the coast near Canberra, Brugman conjures the undertow that the Abrolhos exerts on their imaginations.

One of the joys of this book is the frequent lines in Finnish, with translations following directly in the text. This way we get a sense of the music of the family’s dialogue, and Brugman gracefully deploys this technique to illustrate differences in language use between her first- and second-generation immigrants as well. Onni recalls a section of the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala about the creation and loss of the mysterious Sampo, a magical item like a Horn of Plenty – something he likens to their life on Little Rat. The saga of the Saari family told in this book delivers satisfying story-details of ‘new Australians’ making good, and making do, and making mistakes, but its great achievement is making us feel the magnetic effect of a tiny, windswept, wave-bashed island on people who thought that they could leave it behind.

Bernard Caleo is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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