It was a cruel summer. I had every intention of writing blog posts about summer reading that could uplift in these times of anarchy and chaos. And then I learned of the passing of C.W. “Sandy” Huntington, Jr. on 19 July 2020 through a favourite Buddhist news website – Buddhistdoor: https://www.buddhistdoor.net/news/buddhist-scholar-cw-sandy-huntington-dies-aged-71 Sandy was a Buddhist Studies scholar and novelist, and I met him through this blog. He wrote Maya: A Novel in 2015 (Wisdom Publications) which I reviewed on the Buddhist Fiction Blog here: https://buddhistfictionblog.wordpress.com/tag/maya/ . Even though my acquaintance with Sandy was short, he was so collegial, warm hearted and intellectually generous, I felt heard, and he left me with a lasting impression of caring and hope. My heart goes out to his family, friends, colleagues, and students.
July seems so long ago now and I am very glad that the cool air of fall is blowing away some of my summer brain fog. In an effort to live in the present, I will not look back at my summer intentions. Instead, I will announce a new work of Buddhist Fiction that I am reading for fall. It is The Search for Jewel Island by R.N. Jackson. It’s just been published in August and you can find it on Amazon (link under cover photo).
R.N. Jackson is an adventurer, writer, and teacher. He manages the Religion and Philosophy department at one of the UK’s leading independent schools in Cheshire. He is offering a free digital novella, a prequel to The Search for Jewel Island, on his website. It is titled The Eyes of Mara: https://www.rnjackson.com/freebook
I hope to have a review of the novel posted before Canadian Remembrance Day (11 November). In the mean time, I’m sure the early reviews highlighted below will entice you to join me in reading this first novel in what promises to be a long saga of Buddhist fiction novels.
Early reviews from the Amazon.co.uk site:
“A really wonderful engaging book, full of rich Tibetan Buddhist mythology, and impossible to put down, I look forward to reading the sequel!” – Thomas Straughan, Manchester Buddhist Society
“For a debut novel RN Jackson’s The Search for Jewel Island is an assured and convincing read, effortlessly transporting us back to a time, not so long ago, in 1986, when facts about the natural world could only be sourced from experts or from books made of paper and ink – and tweeting was for the birds. This book, the first of an intended series, is certainly not for the birds. It is for readers who have an inkling there is more to the world than might at first be apparent.
Esta Brown, the sullen schoolgirl tearaway at the heart of the story, has read in her science textbook that the tweeting of birds may seem beautiful to us but can be threatening and fearful for the birds themselves: ‘things that seem one way… can really be the opposite.’ It is this idea that slowly unfolds in her mind, like the petals of a delicate and alluring flower, through a series of unforeseeable, uncanny and frightening events, each ushering in the next threat or reason to be fearful.
These events are set in motion by the unexplained disappearance of her father and the raw emotions this event provokes. Her mother and Gran are too bound by grief to be of any real help. One thing leads to another and like falling dominos ‘an unbroken clattering sequence of cause and effect’ unexpectedly transforms Esta from wayward loser into a stubborn seeker for truth and unwitting eco-warrior. The world she knows, bounded by her irritating school, her Gran’s care-home and the road development that threatens it, begins inexplicably to intermingle with a land of demons and gurus, lofty mountains and misty valleys. Rusty items of junk – a hinge, a bolt, a letter-opener – become objects of unexpected power.
The Search for Jewel Island is both a novel of ideas and a fantasy that is firmly, insistently, grounded in the world of ordinary experience: the failures (and saving graces) of adults, the helpfulness (and betrayals) of friends, the jealousy, pride and greed that make life more complicated than it might otherwise be. Simon – he of the permanent tan and the piercing blue eyes – is the boy girls fall for and the other boys wish they were. Yet somehow Esta and Simon team up to make bizarre discoveries in an old house that is scheduled for demolition. It is the place her father was drawn to before his disappearance. Esta’s new friends, Graham and Lily, initially doubt her explanation for Simon’s sudden disappearance, but they soon discover that things can be humdrum and mysterious, common-place and life-threatening, conventional and peculiar – sometimes simultaneously.
What is more bizarre, as Esta discovers, is that modes of being and beliefs about the world ‘can be true in different ways at the same time’. The one mode is commonplace. The other is ineffable – or in other words, for most of us and for most of the time, beyond any possibility of description. Courageously, Jackson attempts not only to describe this interpenetration, but to draw us into its unsettling oddness.
In making this inter-folded world the location of his story, which shifts precariously beneath our everyday understanding, Jackson, though he may not know it, is following in the footsteps of a once popular but now largely forgotten novelist, who was one of a triumvirate of fantasy writers active in the 1930s to the 1950s. Two of them remain well known: CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. The third was Charles Williams, whose novels TS Eliot described as ‘supernatural thrillers’ and of which Lewis said ‘he is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, let us suppose that this everyday world were at some one point invaded by the marvellous’.
Lewis, Tolkien and Williams believed there was more to the world than might at first be apparent. The Oxford University literary discussion group they were part of was called, tellingly, the ‘Inklings’.
Jackson’s novel is not easy to categorise. It is not Sword and Sorcery, nor Super-hero adventure, nor High-School Horror – though it has elements of each. If The Search for Jewel Island indeed becomes part of a forthcoming novel sequence, Jackson may be creating an entirely new genre – or resurrecting one we have not seen for some time. Not quite Sense and Sensibility. More like Weirdness and Wisdom.
Halfway through the novel we discover what Jewel Island is. At least, we think we do. It takes the next half of the story to unravel, with mounting tension and headlong pace, the deeper secret that Jewel Island holds: a weapon that can defeat the forces of chaos and darkness and help Esta rediscover her father.
This is nail-biting, exhilarating, supernatural writing at its best. It’s far from being a novel in verse yet it succeeds in making a case for the place of poetry in our lives. It helps us understand that what is precious is what is meaningful.
I did not intend to read the last third of the book in one sitting. I had planned what I thought were more pressing tasks. Yet the intended tasks had to wait. I was too gripped to tear myself away.
Maybe it was for fear of Gran’s warning to Esta that I kept on reading. To find the meaning of the island. ‘You have to grab it. Make use of it. Do something with it. Or, one day, the winds come, your ship blows away and you never find it again.’ ” – David Banks