A woman with a modest past turns unlikely spy in the Galápagos in this evocative fictionalized history.
Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is based on the life of a woman named Frances Conway, who lived with her husband, Ainslie, on the Galápagos Islands for several stretches in the 1930s and ’40s. Aside from her memoirs, which reveal only the day-to-day mechanics of her life, little is known about her. In Amend’s imaginative, richly detailed novel, Frances comes from a large, poor family of Polish Jewish immigrants in Duluth, Minn., where her lifelong friendship with a girl named Rosalie begins. The girls are in many ways opposites: Rosalie is from a relatively well-off family of better-established German immigrants; she is coddled, sexually precocious and selfish. As teenagers, the two run away together to Chicago, where a serious betrayal causes them to part ways.
When they reunite in middle age, Rosalie is married to a wealthy man and has a mansion filled with sweet children. Frances has recently married the tall, handsome, charismatic Ainslie Conway, but it is an arrangement orchestrated by Naval Intelligence, their shared employer. Ainslie is being sent to the Galápagos to keep an eye on suspected German spies, and Franny is part of his cover. The falsehood of their relationship pains Franny, and Ainslie has more secrets than just the nature of his profession. Still, the years on Floreana Island–one of the Islas Encantadas, as the Galápagos were once called–are the happiest of her life.
“You’re not allowed to read this–I’m not even really allowed to write it,” begins Enchanted Islands, Franny’s fictional third memoir. In her own words, she tells her life story with emotional resonance: confusion at Rosalie’s behavior as a teenager, bitterness and jealousy at her cruelties, a quiet if resentful acceptance of an unexciting life, and then exhilaration as she discovers Ainslie and stimulating new work, and rediscovers her old friend Rosalie. The narrative is colorful and sensually bursting, from the wet laundry that dominated her childhood home to the creatures and climate of Floreana, a changeable, isolated place both tropical and desert. These details are engrossing and lush, while the realities of World War II are recalled in dreamier terms; Franny is either far away on the island for much of it, or back at home in San Francisco feeling detached and lost without Ainslie. Her no-nonsense voice–by turns aggrieved, resigned, distraught, clever and wise–is the perfect foil to the fantastical nature of her life.
Amend offers strong, nuanced characters and a potent backdrop. Her prose is lovely without being overbearing, and her dialogue is impeccable, effortlessly evoking the characters’ lovable eccentricities and less lovable faults. With a wide-ranging, adventuresome plot and a humbly engaging protagonist, Enchanted Islands is a gorgeous piece of historical fiction.
This review originally ran in the May 3, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.