Book: Selkirk's Island

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Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe

Author: Diana Souhami
Publisher: Harcourt

Piracy and betrayal frame the epic story of solitary endurance that inspired Daniel Defoe’s classic novel.

Who was the real Robinson Crusoe? And what did he really experience during his solitary stay on a remote island in the Pacific? Diana Souhami’s revelatory account of Alexander Selkirk’s adventures on the high seas and dry land leads us to the answers to both these questions, and explores the reality behind the romance of privateering on the high seas.

Born to a poor Scottish family, Selkirk signed on with an ill-fated quest to sack the famous Manila galleon, one of the richest prizes on the southern seas. After a series of misfortunes and disagreements among the crew, Selkirk was put ashore on an island three hundred miles west of South America, where he spent four years learning to survive with little more than his bare hands.

Acclaimed biographer Diana Souhami evokes all the strangeness and wonder of his story and interprets the haze created by three centuries of literature and legend. The result is a brilliantly lucid and lyrical recovery and discovery of a forgotten man and his unforgettable experience.


Diana Souhami’s Selkirk’s Island is not the first book about the extraordinary, real-life adventures of the Scotsman, Alexander Selkirk—that credit must go to a rather better-known book, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Nor, doubtless, will it be the last. But it might be the best. Diana Souhami’s book commands superlatives for every reason. The author of previous, outstanding biographies, including the prizewinning The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, Souhami has produced a marvellous account of what life was like on the remote, rain-swept (not desert) island of Juan Fernandez. Selkirk chose to remain on the island in 1704, when he sensed that the piratical voyage he had joined himself to was sinking fast. His shipmates sailed on and left him. For four years he survived in total solitude, hunting the wild goats on the island and clubbing them to death, building a hut from the branches of sandalwood trees, and making fire with dry sticks. Souhami brings everything to life with vivid, imaginary vignettes: “A boa constrictor arrived coiled in the hollow of a cut tree. It had journeyed from Brazil for seven weeks over choppy seas. The tree washed ashore with the turning tide. It sloughed its skin and danced alone.” When at last two ships sailed into Juan Fernandez’s tiny harbour, quite by chance, they found a bearded, savage-looking man, who could only utter the one word: “Marooned!” Souhami is brilliant on the natural history, on the physical details, on the sheer, intractable character of the material world that Selkirk had to deal with—and all these things demand that you, the reader, ask yourself: “Could I have done this? Would I have survived?” This is what makes Selkirk’s Island compelling, fascinating reading, and the three double-page colour photographs of the island are breathtaking. —Christopher Hart

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