Frances Conway, the narrator of Allison Amend’s novel “Enchanted Islands,” is awash in secrets. Some secrets she keeps for professional reasons. Some she keeps for personal reasons. And some she keeps from herself.
Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has fleshed out a work of imagination over the bones of reality. The real Frances Conway and her husband, Ainslie, spent a number of years in the Galapagos Islands, beginning in 1938 with the final stint ending in 1950. Frances wrote two memoirs about their experiences in the challenging environment. Some have suggested, largely in the absence of evidence, that they were spies.
Amend’s characters certainly are spies, sent to a nearly uninhabited island to keep an eye on a number of Germans who have settled there. But while Amend delivers a tense bit of espionage late in the book, much of the feinting and counterfeiting that drives the narrative is of a personal nature.
Here, for example, Frances reflects on a secret she’s kept from Ainslie, a man she has married at the Navy’s request (and who has a significant secret of his own):
“...I hadn’t mentioned to Ainslie that I was Jewish. It just hadn’t come up. Since Chicago I had called myself Frances Frank. It had become my reflex, starting with my residency in Nebraska, not to mention my religion. One was never sure in those days (nor in these) what people thought about Jews.”
“It just hadn’t come up,” is something of a prevarication, as Frances is in the habit of concealing the potentially contentious or uncomfortable — from others and from herself. Her struggles to come to terms with the secrets hidden at the center of her relationships with her best friend and her husband give shape to Amend’s story. “Enchanted Islands” suggests beguiling untruths are often the worst sort of enchantment.