Joy Williams, Islands, and Time

While on Cyprus this summer, I re-read Joy Williams’ The Changeling (1978). Most of the book is set on a mysterious island off, perhaps off the coast of Georgia (but it doesn’t really matter), where Pearl is drawn first by a mysterious man. When he dies a tragic death after they have a son together, she lives out her life on the island in an alcoholic haze. She is surrounded by children who are being raised by her husband’s brother and have largely free rein over the island. In the end, the children and Pearl’s son change and take over the island by reverting to their primordial states. The book is complex, dynamic, and worth reading.

It is also about an island. 

As I think about an island archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus, it’s hard not to think about island in the popular imagination. Jody Gordon’s recent contribution to an island archaeology of Cyprus in a special issue of Land cites Jules Verne’s description of the port at Alexandria as a fictional exemplar of the networked world of ports and islands in the Mediterranean. Williams’ island is the opposite of this. It’s isolated and connected to the mainland (and to the mundane world of reality) by a single boat and a dock almost completely devoid of cosmopolitan bustle.

The isolation of Williams’ island slows and distorts time. The children revert to a beastial, primordial past amid buildings chocked full of artifacts from the days of the island’s founding settler. To make this connection between time and place more clear, the book begins with Pearl drinking gin-and-tonics in a nondescript hotel bar which embodies the character of 20th century non-places as deeply as the island represents a place with its own time, past, and present. 

The leap from Williams’ fictional island to real islands is easy enough. Marshall Sahlins’ Islands of History offers a perspective on how island communities manipulate time and history to understand and construct their world. I don’t have any idea right now how to use these ideas to understand the island archaeology of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Re-reading Williams and thinking about my abstract, however, has made me consider that maybe the idea of historical contingency has less to do with a linear concept of archaeological or historical time that exists on island, on mainlands, in texts, and in material culture and more to do with the distinctive flow of time on Cyprus. In other words, maybe island archaeology has more to do with how time (and ultimately history) works on an island and less to do with how islands speak to history and time beyond their shores.  

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