Islands is essentially the fictionalized history of South Africa from the time that the Dutch claim their first foreign outpost to service their ships, albeit carefully researched, a familiar story. Civilization is rife with such tales: indigenous lands overtaken by a superior force, outlasting those who have depended on cultivation of their particular geography for their livelihood.
When the Hollanders arrive on the shores of South Africa in 1650, the natives are guided by their English-speaking Chief Harry (Herri), who interfaces with the Dutch for the benefit of the tribe, the Goringhaicona. The natives expect the Dutch to sail away; instead they plant the flag, designating this place a Dutch port, anticipating that the natives will abide by the same law as the settlers: Haerlem's Law - work first, then eat.
The pivotal character in the novel is Pieternella, daughter of a Dutch surgeon and a Hottentot woman, Eva (Krotoa), who loses the allegiance of her tribe by working for the Dutch. The surgeon, Peter Havgard, is attracted to Eva, who is renamed by the Hollanders. Eva becomes pregnant with their child, acceding her place in both worlds, belonging fully to neither. In an effort to supplement their income, Peter goes on a series of expeditions to explore the South African land.
After a few cruel winters, the Dutch overcome the more primitive Hottentots, gradually wearing away their opposition, and reducing their numbers by attrition. It falls to Pieternella to monitor the story of the following years via her tangential relationship with various characters, contrasting the devastation of her own country with the success of the burghers. Continuing their usurpation of the land, the Dutch cultivate crops, breed cattle and establish a presence that overwhelms the few scattered tribes left to oppose their occupation.
In excess of 700 pages, this interesting turn of history's pages is flattened by detail in a retelling that is devoid of passion. Perhaps it is the weight of the Dutch personality, as with stubborn obsession the Dutch simply flatten anything that stands in the way. With typical European hubris, it is assumed that the settlers are superior to the natives, all dictated with an avid brutality, the determination of the Dutch immutable and unchallenged by an inferior scattering of natives existing in a simple societal structure. Instead, God and the Company rule this land from the first.
As the various characters evolve in the novel, their voices are eerily similar: the Dutch inscrutable, the natives bewildered and depressed, no one to challenge the might of God or Company. It is hardly shocking that this continent eventually suffers such violence and political upheaval, raising up to challenge the first settlers who claimed the land, denying the rights of indigenous peoples.