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Laura Coffey: Enchanted Islands

Posted on Apr 18

4 min read

Alumni Events & News

Alumna Laura Coffey is a travel writer whose first book, Enchanted Islands – Travels through Myth & Magic, Love & Loss, is due to be published by Summersdale on 2 May 2024. In this article she reflects on her time at Cambridge and the unique journey, following in Odysseus’ footsteps that inspired the book.

If you’d asked me when I was at St John’s studying Social and Political Sciences if I had any interest in reading The Odyssey or in Greek myths in general I would have rolled my eyes and replied that I had far more important things to do, like being in plays, going dancing at Cindies and being desperately in love with my boyfriend. Back then it felt like an epic journey just to walk from the back gate of College to the Sidgwick site for lectures.

But now I’ve written a book all about Greek myth and my quest to map the real-life islands that inspired the wanderings of Homer’s epic hero, Odysseus. Enchanted Islands didn’t start out as a book, it started out as a holiday to Italy that unspooled into six months of travel through tiny Mediterranean islands thought to be the setting of the fantastical lands of The Odyssey.

Scholars across time have attempted to map the imaginary lands of the poem onto the real world. Their theories are all based on little more than whimsy, as far as I can see, but the idea of trying to pin down fantastical places onto concrete geography has a sort of compelling madness to it, and it gave shape to my own wanderings. Just like Odysseus, it took me a lot longer to get home than I expected and, just like him, I met an eccentric cast of characters on the way – including a serious ornithologist who taught me about bird ringing, a sex therapist and a seventy-year-old nudist called Naked Andrew.

But I’m no Classics scholar, and I felt like an imposter as I was writing the book. I wish I’d known what imposter syndrome was when I was at St John’s; I think we all felt so lucky to be there, and so undeserving of all that privilege, those beautiful buildings, those mind stretching supervisions, all that earnest, serious, looping twenties talk with friends late into the night. What a wonder it was to be learning in that place, how lightly we took it back then. How many things I’d do differently if I could travel back in time. I’d definitely dance more for a start.

Back in those days when I was running around the quads in a pink cashmere scarf and a warm coat against that vicious Cambridge wind, hosting parties in our beloved triple set and having long May Ball Committee meetings discussing how this year’s ball could ever hope to beat last year’s, I didn’t think I’d grow up to be a writer. I didn’t think much about the future at all. I was busy being happy in the present.

I wrote most of my book in a friend’s beach house on a tiny island off Sicily, in between swimming in cold October seawater and drinking too many espressos in a bid to hit my daily word count target. Sounds romantic doesn’t it? It wasn’t actually quite as dreamy in reality, but still it was an amazing thing to have been given a book contract, statistically so incredibly unlikely. A whole team of people formed around the book. The editor drew the illustrations, my sister in law did the calligraphy on the maps and friends read early drafts and offered editorial advice and suggestions that hugely improved the writing. I was lucky to have an incredible designer who made my vision of a ‘sea of dreams’ for the cover come true. There’s so much motion through the book, I wanted it to feel like the sea was moving and she wove together a collage of photographs that look magical. The book shimmers when you pick it up because there’s gold foil running across it, like sunlight sparkling on the waves.

There were other odd coincidences too. I was writing about Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey and her sister, Bee Wilson, had taught me at St John’s in my second year. I hadn’t put two and two together, and I didn’t realise they were related until after I’d finished writing.

Part of the publishing process is to send out advanced copies for endorsements. I always knew Stephen Fry would be the perfect person, and by some feat of luck we managed to get it to him. Even more luckily, he agreed to read it. And just before Christmas this email landed in my inbox:

‘Laura Coffey’s personal Odyssey is a magical and hugely captivating journey into journeys. Like the original Odyssey and all that follow it, Enchanted Islands is about finding one’s way home. But the adventures on the way are filled with such beauty, wonder and surprise. The journey changes the meaning of the destination. A simply marvellous read, hugely recommended’

Stephen Fry

That nineteen-year-old girl running over the Bridge of Sighs, late as always, stops in her tracks and turns, flashes me a grin for just a moment, then keeps running, into the future. 

You can support Laura by ordering a copy. She will also be doing an event at Heffers bookshop in May, as well as events in London. The details can be found here and she’d love to see fellow Johnians there.

Laura Coffey’s book, Enchanted Islands: Travels through Myth & Magic, Love & Loss (Summersdale, £16.99), will be published on 2 May 2024. You can follow her on instagram at L_J_Coffey