In 1835, Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos, aka the Enchanted Isles, prompting the theory of evolution by natural selection. By 1945, the likes of Adolf Hitler had perverted this theory in most horrific fashion. This coincidence of paradise with inferno underlies Allison Amend's absorbing third novel, Enchanted Islands.
Our narrator, Frances, is a Polish-American Jew telling her life story from the perspective of a 1960s nursing home. A native of Duluth, Minnesota, she spends her youth in Chicago and Nebraska, working as a farmhand and teacher. By middle age, in San Francisco, she marries a spook named Ainslie Conway and follows him to Galapagos, which have strategic importance thanks to their proximity to the Panama Canal. Frances delights in the island's riches. The novel resembles others offering islands as places of escape, including Conrad's Victory or Alex Garland's The Beach. But as usual in these works, someone shows up to dash the illusion.
Frances Conway was a real person. She and Ainslie wrote a memoir, The Enchanted Islands, that elided the cloak-and-dagger stuff. Amend's spirited rendition of her life reads less like a memoir and more like Jane Austen. It has acute interpersonal observations and subjective flights of fancy—not Gertrude Bell so much as Gertrude Stein. Darwin and Hitler also haunt Enchanted Islands. But the islands aren't enchanted so much as Conway is.