Sanderson’s Isle By James Clarke

Psychedelic 1960s London, TV personalities, counterculture in the Lake District - and a lost child
Marianne Dugdale
July 18, 2023

Following previous works, The Litten Path and Hollow in the Land, comes James Clarke’s third book Sanderson’s Isle. This is a surprising and often uncomfortable read, tracing ideas of parenthood, belonging, landscape and superstition, with rising counterculture and violent clashes of expectation against reality.

It’s as if the years leading up to this point are nothing more than documents in a file. I feel like I’m about to bump my head on the roof of my own death.

Thomas Speake arrives in London searching for a father he never knew and instead meets Joe Sanderson, an ageing TV presenter who he quickly sizes up, and who reads him closely in return. Through Sanderson he also meets Marnie, whose adoptive child has been scooped up by his birth mother and spirited away to a Lake District commune. After a violent accident in the pursuit of his own birth father catches up with him, Speake flees London for Cumbria with Sanderson, taking an opportunity to assist with interviews and research for his next series of hit show Sanderson’s Isle.

The narrative voice is addictive, at times savage and detached, at others sensitive to beautiful sights and poetically observant. As in Clarke’s previous books, landscape is keenly observed, with the modern upward-reaching urban development contrasted with the older buildings they rub shoulders with, and the quieter, natural landscape of Cumbria defined by the character of its inhabitants. Social landscapes are as important as physical ones, be it Sanderson’s crowded parties where the punch is spiked with acid, or the meditative chill of the commune tinged with its edge of countercultural threat.

Speake is an orphan in more ways than one. As well as jumbled communication from his deceased mother and the unanswered questions surrounding his paternity, he roves from place to place, seeming to test each one for a sense of home after having lived all over…border villages, market towns, major cities, moving place to place, rarely knowing a single person. He makes light of his own detachment, but spends the book pursuing a sense of belonging, which the reader feels as a jagged unsettledness in the storytelling. He will take on a vision of his potential life, convince himself it is realistic, before being confronted with the practicalities of how life might actually look compared to the emotional pull of his imagination.

James Clarke
James Clarke

The distinctions between urban and rural are defined but also blurred together, much like the mirrored-image on the cover of the book which very succinctly evokes the atmosphere of the text. On arriving in Cumbria, Speake observes that no matter where you look, everything is quietly living over everything else – which inevitably reminds the reader of the sky-reaching Compass Tenements of his last situation, residents stacked one on top of another and an Alsatian dog chained on the roof.

The novel traces many connections between parents and children – from the loving to the dysfunctional, neglectful to just plain absent – and the ways biology does not always define the role of ‘parent’. There are themes here of past and potential futures and their colliding effects on the present moment: Already I’m ahead of myself, stealing from the future…witnessing planet earth, space, this whole damn thing.

The eponymous character of Sanderson is evoked with an uncomfortable sympathy – he cuts a recognisable figure, one that Speake quickly understands and is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by. There are plenty of analogous figures Sanderson could be compared to, but specific comparisons would perhaps be useless – the context of Speake’s interactions with Sanderson are key to the story, and the frame through which the reader know him. Offering a palmistry reading in an underground nuclear bunker, Speake enjoys laying out his flaws in front of his assembled fans, and this skill for insight is key not only to their relationship but to Speake’s choices and the novel’s ambiguous ending layered with conflicting emotion.

Sanderson’s Isle is a complex and layered tale, which at times is difficult to read while being equally impossible to put down. It is filled with morally grey characters whose vices and virtues evoke unexpected sympathy as we understand them better.

Sanderson's Isle by James Clarke has been published this week in Hardback and Ebook by Serpent's Tail