Book Review: The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco

This is a fascinating character-driven piece of historical fiction from the celebrated Umberto Eco (author of The Name of the Rose).

It is 1643. Roberto is a young noble who survives a ship wreck to find himself on board a deserted ship, the Daphne slowly drifting toward the International Dateline. Told from the perspective of a biographer reading notes that Roberto made while aboard Daphne, it spends much of the book looking back at the many misfortunes in Roberto’s life and how the young man comes to obsess over what happened to the crew, whether there is a mystery passenger aboard and seeks to reach the island and thereby cross from one day to the previous. If he can do this, he convinces himself, his life might just take a turn for the better. But reefs separate the ship from the island and Roberto cannot swim.

The second half of the novel is philosophy heavy. I never like to give too much away in these book reviews but in effect it is a ‘coming of age’ drama. The coming of age isn’t just Roberto’s; Eco seems to have chosen the year immediately following the death of Galileo for good reason because this is also a coming of age tale for humanity, a parable for the dawn of the Enlightenment if you will. In this way it is very reminiscent of Galileo’s Dream which I reviewed HERE.

Here is my favourite passage from the book:

Then Roberto had a dazzling thought. What was all this mental jabber about? Why, Father Casper himself had said it in so many words: the Island Roberto saw before him was not the island of today but that of yesterday. Beyond that meridian it was the day before! Could he expect to see now on that beach, where it was yesterday, a person who had descended into the water today? Surely not. The old man had immersed himself in the early morning of this Monday, but if on the ship it was Monday, on that Island it was still Sunday, and therefore he would not be able to see his friend emerge until the morning of its tomorrow, when on the Island it would be, at last, Monday…

Ouch! Of course the ideas of ‘today’, ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ are all human constructs and the international dateline is arbitrary. There is no time paradox and this is one of those concepts that Roberto must come to terms with.

A very clever novel but in the first half I sometimes found it hard to keep my concentration.

3.5/5

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