Mark Howard Jones, The Garden of Doubt on the Island of Shadows. ISMs Press, 2006. Pp. 49. ISBN 9780955418501. £1.99.

Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy

Mark Howard Jones's novella The Garden of Doubt on the Island of Shadows is the first book published by Manchester-based ISMs Press, which identifies itself as seeking "to merge and modernize the ideas behind Expressionism, Surrealism and Existentialism."

This mandate is nothing if not ambitious--and perhaps, a bit intimidating, in its hinting that idea and style might trump story and character. Fortunately, while The Garden of Doubt certainly qualifies on the score of surrealism, its accessible structure and clear, occasionally striking, prose making it quite readable.

The story starts in London in the autumn of 1974, where Jones's protagonist Sandy is forlorn after the disappearance of her rock musician lover, Michael, two months earlier. Everyone around her seems comparatively unconcerned, completely clueless but sure he will turn up safe and sound soon enough--or so they tell her. Listening to his records, however, she becomes convinced that there's a message to her in his lyrics, about a journey to a pale island, and she sets out to find out, sure that she will find him there.

Some of the tropes are not especially fresh, but the way that loss can stop a life and shove everything else into the background, and the alienation from everyone around her who can't quite share that feeling, are all artfully related in Sandy's early scenes. (Lukie's boorish insensitivity toward Sandy, his picking "a painful scab right off" in Jones's phrase, particularly sticks out in my mind.) The same goes for the obsessiveness that can set in at such moments, which is what Sandy's preoccupation with Michael's old lyrics might prove to be in a different story.

The Garden of Doubt, however, is not concerned with epistemological uncertainty; as readers realize early on, the pattern Sandy thinks she sees in all that noise isn't paranoia after all. However, that by itself is no guarantee of happy reconciliation, or even that everything will make sense in the end. This is a story about loss, both the depths of it, and its limits, and that is its real strength in the end. Where so much literature rejecting realist modes of storytelling reduces its characters to ciphers (consider, for instance, Thomas Pynchon's famously cold characters), the frustrations and disconnects Sandy inevitably encounters as she explores the dream-like island draw their force from the deep feelings of genuine characters.

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