Island of the World
By Michael D. O’Brien
Ignatius Press, 2007
850 pages, $29.95
To order: ignatius.com
by JOY WAMBEKE
Island of the World reinforces Michael D. O’Brien’s position as a master Catholic storyteller. It is the life story of Josip Lasta, a man of science who is destined to lose, and then find, everything. Growing up in Croatia on the eve of World War II, he experiences loss that few of us could comprehend. Then, as a brilliant young mathematician, he becomes involved with a cultural revolution against the communists who have taken over his country.
It is this involvement that costs him dearly, providing the catalyst for change — both good and bad — within his soul. And finally, as an aging man, he surrenders himself to Christ.
In a story such as this, the temptation would be for the author to miss the depth of his characters, accentuating the triumph without properly treating the struggle. However, O’Brien’s genius is his insight into the desires and movements of the human soul. It makes Island of the World an honest portrayal of despair and conversion.
Island of the World reaches deep into the realm of philosophy and theology, unafraid of the most pressing and sometimes dangerous questions, and places them where they are most alive: in life. Throughout much of his life, Josip struggles with belief and disbelief. He thinks, “If the enemies of God can kill a man as good as Fra Anto, and imprison a man as fine as the cardinal, and destroy families and villages and nations that follow God, where then is God? And if he exists, why does he not act, why does he not defend his children? The question is so steeped in blood that, whenever it flashes into his mind, he can sustain it only for a moment at a time. It must be pushed away. He cannot solve it, so why should he torment himself with it?”
The story revolves around this query. And rather than giving the answer to this question all at once as would be more appropriate in the Summa Theologiae, O’Brien shows that in life it can take 70 years and the sum of one’s experiences to satisfy it.
O’Brien’s style is lyrical and moving, at times blending prose and poetry. His characters and settings reflect the diverse lives of those in the world around us. And, while the pace of action often slows, it offers the perceptive reader the opportunity for many rewarding meditations as he carefully examines the life of a saint.
At one point in the story, Lasta comments that art “is always mysterious, always pointing to and revealing something beyond itself.” In this, Island of the World is most triumphant.
Joy Wambeke writes
from Marshall, Minnesota.