Book Review: An Island by Karen Jennings

An Island – Karen Jennings (Hogarth, 2022)

I received an Advance Uncorrected Proof of this book. All opinions are my own. On Sale July 5, 2022.

Samuel lives alone on a small island. He is the lighthouse keeper. When bodies wash ashore, no one cares and Samuel deals with them. He has lived on this island for more than two decades, never returning to the mainland where political unrest has dogged him his entire life. Then one day, a body washes ashore, only this man is still alive.

This story takes place over just four days, all on the confines of the island, with flashbacks to Samuel’s youth and early relationships as well as his time as a political prisoner. His country is unnamed but presumably one in Africa. Born in the countryside, Samuel and his family were first out of their home when he was a child. His father joins the fight for independence, which results in the country’s first election of their own president. But corruption soon sets in and by the time Samuel is a young man, the president is ousted by a new leader who becomes known as the Dictator. Samuel becomes swept up in political movement and is arrested during a march.

Years later, the island becomes a place of safety, a place that is only his, where he can be removed from the uneasy status on the mainland. The bodies that wash ashore are implied to be refugees from other nations. When Samuel reports them to government officials he is asked if their skin is the same colour as his. This man who survives and comes ashore speaks a different language and fears the boat that brings Samuel supplies. Samuel shelters him but as memories of his own past begin to overwhelm him, he struggles to know who to trust, to distinguish reality and memory and his fear and anger begin to overpower him.

There were obvious reminders to me here of What Strange Paradise, another recent novel about a refugee washed ashore on an island. The books were originally published around the same time (this edition makes An Island more widely available for the first time) so I think those parallels speak more to the largeness of this issue than a true similarity between them. There were also flashes of The Lord of the Flies in the island’s removal from society and the fight for these two men to survive.

Jennings does an excellent job of creating this unnamed country and island and broadly drawing its history while focusing on the single character of Samuel. More knowledgeable readers may be able to name the country but I couldn’t and I didn’t find that to take anything away from my reading. Countries suffering from the longterm impacts of colonization, struggling to define their independence, beaten down by power-hungry men, are all over the world. Jennings wisely lets her readers fill in those blanks and while there are parts that are hard to read, she uses those to remind us of our commonality as human beings.

In the end, there is much left unsaid. How much of Samuel’s fear was correct? Where did this stranger come from and what was he fleeing? We never know. At the same time, I felt that the story ended at the right point and had its own sense of completeness.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: An Island by Karen Jennings”

  1. Sounds interesting, and it’s good to see the Booker longlist including more Commonwealth writers again – it had become far too heavily weighted towards UK/US writers in recent years.

    1. Yes, I appreciated that too. I haven’t read much out of South Africa so it was interesting to read a new perspective.

    1. No, he’s the only one. He’s the lighthouse keeper and so the island has the lighthouse, the cottage where he lives, and his garden. Occasionally a couple of men come from the mainland with supplies for him.

  2. This sounds like a good book! I haven’t read This Strange Paradise yet, but I intend to soon. I like when the author doesn’t name the place exactly, because as you suggested, this could be MANY different places, unfortunately.

    1. I kind of like that too. Because I’m not super knowledgeable about the history of many African nations, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be able to identify where this was but it still worked without having a specific place. And as you say, it really could be so many places.

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