When you think of desert island stories, there are certain examples that come to mind. Whether it’s literary classics like The Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe or cinematic adventures such as Castaway and Six Days, Seven Nights, they all have one thing in common: all involve characters stranded on a speck of land with only their wits to keep them alive. Now we can add Dane Huckelbridge’s Castle of Water to the list – an adventurous and affecting tale about two strangers marooned in the South Pacific after a plane crash.

American bond salesman Barry Bleeker was ready for an adventure when he boarded a small plane in search of fine art and creative inspiration. After the plane hits a violent storm and plunges headfirst into the ocean – miles off course due to a massive error in judgement by the hungover pilot – Barry thinks he’s the only survivor. Then French architect Sophie Ducel washes ashore in a life raft, dehydrated and traumatised after witnessing her new husband die from injuries he sustained in the crash.

A trip that was supposed to signal new beginnings for both Barry and Sophie soon turns into a nightmare as they set up a makeshift camp on an island “not much bigger than Madison Square Park”, surrounded by endless ocean and far from civilisation. Nationality is not the only difference between the two sole survivors, as they continually clash and bicker over how best to survive and thrive. Sophie is a strong-minded and straight talking Parisian with a poor opinion of Americans, whilst Barry is an aspiring painter, rediscovering his artistic side, who takes the brunt of his new companion’s potty mouth.

With each week that passes, Sophie and Barry’s hopes of a rescue continue to fade but instead of crumbling into a heap of despair, they rise to the challenge of staying alive. The two pool their expertise and, along with the island’s natural resources and what’s left of the plane’s emergency kit, they create a habitable and sustainable existence, turning their island into a home along the way.

Huckelbridge’s debut novel is a poignant, perceptive and engaging story of love, loss, hope and survival against the odds. More than that though, it’s about the power and resilience of the human spirit; about what people are capable of enduring when they have no other choice. You’ll be hard pushed not to fall in love with Sophie and Barry, both hopelessly ordinary yet resourceful in their attempts at foraging for food and building a new life out of what they can scavenge from their desolate surroundings.

Castle of Water is unexpectedly funny in parts, as the castaways quarrel about seemingly insignificant things and Sophie hurls French insults at her American counterpart. The warmth that emanates from the pair as they go from total strangers to each other’s salvation gives the story a real tenderness. Had one washed ashore and not had the other for company, they would surely have died very quickly and very alone.

Of course this is a story of adventure and survival, complete with a killer octopus that Barry christens Balthazar, but the evolving relationship between the two main characters is the driving force throughout the book. Going by the colourful jacket cover, you could be fooled into thinking that it was just another Castaway or Robinson Crusoe retelling but Castle of Water holds plenty of surprises along the way. And when you reach the end, you’ll want to go back and read it all again.

★★★★

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