Norman Davies’ The Isles offers a gripping historical narrative of the cultural, economic, and political history of what most members of the twenty-first century refer to as Ireland and the United Kingdom. The author constructs a narrative that emphasizes chance and change over institutional design, thereby creating a living history, rather than a stale memorial to the rise of a monolithic (and mythic) civilization. Davies despises teleological accounts of history that suggest "smooth, seamless, linear progress." Instead, he argues, the history of the isles demonstrates "kaleidoscopic change and of repeated, turbulent transformations." Simplified economic models of state development and teleological historical accounts distort history, and leave unsuspecting readers with similarly distorted minds; Davies aims to counter such histories with a well-spun tale of how a national consciousness takes shape, forms, and disintegrates, time after time.
The chaos of history might make for a chaotic-mess of a book, but Davies carefully spaces the history of the isles into ten simple eras. He examines each era with three reoccurring (and very effective) methodological tools: a 'snapshot' of a particular person or action from the period at hand, a wide-angle account of the same era, and finally an examination of how subsequent generations portray the time period. Davies' use of a three-pronged attack on each historical era represents one of the great strengths of the book. Each section allows him to use a different level of magnification. When an historical cause seems of critical import, or illuminates a particular aspect of a people's culture, Davies gladly hesitates over its significance and meaning, breathing fresh life into a familiar story. (If the book receives a second edition, the author (and publisher) might wish to reorganize portions of the last few eras, which seem thrown together compared with the artfully constructed early chapters.)
At times, however, Davies' forceful strokes bleed beauty out of the accomplishments that occurred within the confines of the isles. His emphasis on historical chance and idiosyncratic outcomes tends to spoil some of the interest of humanity's frail accomplishments, such as the inexplicable genius of Shakespeare, or the psychological fortitude and madness of William Wallace.
Despite Davies’ hum-bug approach to genius, the book offers fascinating historical accounts on every page. Ten-thousand years ago, Davies argues, the isles lived nameless. His book, in its dying fall, offers no suggestion as to what humanity should call them next.