Wisdom From Kammbia Review 128: The Death of Doctor Island by Gene Wolfe

by | Aug 27, 2023 | 2023 Book Reviews, Gene Wolfe, Wisdom From Kammbia Column, Wisdom From Kammbia Novella Review | 0 comments

Gene Wolfe is one of my favorite authors.  However, I did not come to his work through his magnum opus, The Book of New Sun. I’ve started with some of his standalone novels, like Pirate Freedom and The Land Across. Also, I’ve read the first book of some of his series like The Knight and Soldier of the Mist. I’ve also read his award-winning novella from 1978, Seven American Nights. Wolfe has a reputation of being an author that one must re-read to get a better understanding of his stories.  And I have found the aforementioned books a better way to engage his work than his magnum opus.

I finished another novella of his The Death of Dr. Island. The story first appeared in the Universe 3 anthology edited by Terry Carr in 1973. It has also been reprinted in Wolfe’s short story collections, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and The Best of Gene Wolfe.  The latter is where I read the novella.

The Death of Doctor Island tells the story of Nicholas Kenneth de Vore, a teenager, and his sojourn on an island. A sentient being calls itself Dr. Island communicates with Nicholas through nature, including waves, leaves, and monkeys. Nicholas encounters two other inhabitants on the island, Ignacio and Diane. The teenager and Ignacio’s relationship was tense and threatened by violence after the attack at the beginning of the novella. Meanwhile, Diane is a disturbed woman trying to figure her place on the island. Wolfe could be criticized for his unflattering portrayal of the woman, which could be seen as a weakness in the story.

Wolfe’s ideas touch on death, multiple personalities, and Christian spirituality. I will admit that I do not think I fully grasped all the symbolism upon an initial reading.  The Death of Doctor Island demands a reread and deeper dive into symbolism that Wolfe has planted in the story.

This is not a story where readers can readily embrace the protagonist and supporting characters.  Wolfe is making a statement far deeper than the typical coming of age story. The Death of Doctor Island adds to my Wolfe reading experience that I admire and respect more than I find entertaining. That’s alright. As a reader (and writer), one needs to be challenged with a story. Gene Wolfe has provided another challenge that I look forward to exploring again.


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