book: island on fire

Book Review
Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark (2014)
Authors: Alexandra Witze, Jeff Kanipe
224 pages

The knock on many books on geology, nature and factual discussion on natural elements is that they cater to ‘their own’, ie others already well versed in the very specific subject at hand, dry, analytical and difficult to engage in.

Island on Fire suffers from no such problems.

The book, which goes in depth into the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Laki in Iceland in 1783, is certainly a factual book, a written documentary. Not only does it recount the Laki eruption, its effects on the people living close to it (through the journals of pastor Jón Steingrímsson) and its repercussions throughout Europe and farther (famine, droughts, cold winters and possibly the French Revolution were direct and indirect results of it), but also provides a snapshot of some of the other biggest eruptions in recorded history and prehistory.

Thankfully, it doesn’t go the route of elevated academic rhetoric, catering only for the initiated, but instead engages the reader with simple, straightforward language, while sacrificing none of its scientific accuracy.

Best of all, Island on Fire largely reads like an apocalyptic survival drama of the highest order, in particular, the chapters on pastor Jón Steingrímsson’s account of the eruption as it took place on his doorstep. It’s written with cinematic flair, painting a vivid portrait of an unimaginable terror unfolding before your eyes. More eerie are the chapters focusing on the experience of English people and people on the continent, who witnessed a literal fog of death descend on their towns and lands, not knowing where it came from, when it would lift or why people started dropping dead.

Combined with the snapshots of others, some even bigger, eruptions through history, such as Krakatoa and Toba, Island on Fire reads as a geological thriller as much as it enlights and informs on volcanoes’ undeniable effect on Earth, humans and even the climate. Witze and Kanipe manage to combine their extensive research and knowledge with thrills in a manner not too dissimilar to Michael Crichton at times, who frequently used real scientific developments as base premises for his thriller novels. While Crichton used science for his drama, Witze and Kanipe use drama for their science, and boy, does it work.

Although the book does veer into speculative climatology at a couple of junctures as it winds down, especially when predicting future development of volcanic activity and its effects on the climate, it ends up making a very engaging argument for the importance of researching and understanding volcanoes better than we do today.

Island on Fire is a thrilling blend of a scientific paper and an apocalyptic survival drama, recounting the Laki eruption of 1783 not only in thorough detail, but with the flair of a cinematic thriller. Instances of speculative climatology aside, it’s a thoroughly engrossing ride.

4.5/5 stars

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