The best storytellers have the ability to transport their readers to another time and place in an utterly convincing way. "Where the World Ends" by Geraldine McCaughrean is one of the most immersive and compelling works of fiction we've read in quite some time. This is a truly remarkable feat, as the setting for the book is somewhere so utterly alien that it might as well be on Mars, and is not much easier to reach.
The author's starting point was a true story. In August 1727 a small group of men and boys living on the island of Hirta, the largest of the islands in the St Kilda archipelago, some 40 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean west of the Western Isles, went to harvest seabirds and eggs on Stac an Armin, or "Warrior Stac", a fearsome and jagged pinnacle of rock on the northern edge of the archipelago. They were due to be there for up to three weeks, depending on the weather being good enough for the group to be picked up by boat. Stac an Armin is one of the most challenging places on earth, rising 196 metres or 643 feet straight up out of the ocean. Even landing is a highly hazardous operation, and extremely weather dependent.
We join the group of three men and nine boys as they make ready for the trip to Warrior Stac. The avian harvest plays an important role in ensuring there is enough food for the St Kildans to survive over the winter, and the annual expedition also helps transform the island's boys into men. Some have been before, but for others it is their first time. All are nervous about the dangers they face in such a barren, inhospitable and vertiginous place. Once they are there the work goes well, and they are highly successful in killing and drying large numbers of the seabirds they came for. But when the times arrives for the boat to collect them, no one comes. Another sea stac prevents a direct line of site from Warrior Stac to the island of Hirta, so they are unable to signal for help or see if anyone is trying to signal them. They simply carry on as best they can, working to pass the time, and hoping against hope that rescue will arrive: all the while wondering what has befallen their families and prevented the pickup taking place.
We follow events mainly from the viewpoint of Quilliam, one of the older boys. He has never been beyond the confines of the archipelago, but knows something of the wider world through stories told to him by Murdina, a girl who has been visiting relatives on St Kilda. No-one reading about the events that follow can fail to be struck by echoes of "Lord of the Flies", as the interplay between personalities under extreme stress begins to produce sometimes bizarre and dysfunctional behaviour. What emerges is a superb novel with some adult themes that is likely to be thoroughly enjoyed by more mature young readers.
We'd vaguely heard of the real-life stranding of this group in 1727, but had forgotten what had caused it to happen, and what the outcome was. As a result there was for us a real sense of tension as the end of the book approached: would the castaways be rescued, and if so how would they re-adapt to their normal lives back on Hirta? Suffice it to say that the novel is rounded off with consummate skill and the result is an outstanding example of the storyteller's art.