Barbara Hodgson, Hippolyte's Island (Raincoast Books, 2001)

Books. They're magical things. I love the feel of a book. Just the touch of it is exciting. Really. The sensory impressions of fingertips on card, and the the easy, careful first crack of the spine. The smell of ink on paper. The slight impression left by the press as it indents the surface of the white sheet, and leaves its mark. What font? I like to look at the last page to see whose updated version of the classic font is being used in this volume. And then, after all this has been noted, I begin to read. It may seem a touch obsessive I admit. My routine for opening CDs is similarly, uh, formatted. Hippolyte's Island is the kind of book that deserves this special treatment.

It is subtitled An Illustrated Novel and it certainly meets that qualification. Barbara Hodgson, a Vancouver-based writer, photographer and designer, has written several of these illustrated books. I haven't read them. I might now.

Hippolytus was the son of Theseus; falsely accused of rape by his stepmother Phaedra, he was cursed by his father and killed when his chariot overturned. Doesn't matter, his mother named this Hippolyte because she liked the name. Hippo-lite, she pronounced it. His school friends called him "Polite" Webb. He's a strange fellow. He likes to travel. He obsesses about it. His room is filled with maps, and books. He doesn't own a telephone. He reads, and gazes at his globe, and his studies have shown him the existence of a string of islands off the Falklands called the Auroras. Islands which showed up on maps for a short period of time, and then, as quickly as they appeared ... were removed...he is determined to travel to the South Atlantic to prove that they do exist. He obtains funds from a school chum, who is now a publisher. With a hefty advance Hippolyte takes a crash course in sailing and heads to Argentina.

That's the first third. The second part is Webb's journey of discovery. The third section recounts the editing of Webb's book about the trip.

Hippolyte's Island begins slowly, but by the time he is studying sailing and making preparations for his journey it is involving reading. The second portion, a man in a boat, adrift in a strange sea, really unprepared for what is happening to him, and the discovery he makes is a testament to Hodgson's skill as a writer. I couldn't get enough of this. It was over too soon.

The final third adds sexual tension and awkward romance as Webb and his editor clash on the "facts" that he wants to include in his book. Marie Simplon simply doesn't believe him. And the stacks of proofs are not convincing her. The paintings, sketches, life studies are included in Hodgson's book. Maps, charts, flora, fauna, old photos, are all reproduced in this beautifully designed volume.

My wife read Hippolyte's Island too. She was ten pages in, and said, "It's pretty slow." I told her to keep going. She finished it, and said, "This is a good book." I could tell you it is "whimsical" and "adventurous," "enigmatic and compelling" but the bottom line is ... my wife's review. This is a good book!

[David Kidney]

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