An island of your own





When we start to read Karen Jennings An island (Picador India, 2021), one might find it hard to believe that an atmospheric novel with such fluid prose first struggled to find a publisher. Even when it managed to get the attention of Holland House, a small independent press, only 500 copies were printed due to the pandemic. The book could not take off because no one defended it via blurbs. But this cutthroat landscape of the publishing industry is a topic for another day.

We meet Samuel as he discovers a barrel of oil and a seemingly dead man on the stony shore who vibrates to the sound of seagulls. In his 23 years as a lighthouse keeper on the uninhabited and unnamed island, such an incident is common. So far he has buried 32 bodies that have washed up on the shore. This particular man, however, is not dead. Samuel soon discovers that he is a lucky refugee who managed to survive a capsized boat. His arrival is a deafening blow to Samuel’s peaceful solitude. He just can’t figure out that he has to share the island with another human being. “Was that it?” This breath, this pulse, this youth, this life, invading the little cottage, seeping into the ground and the walls.

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The man becomes the ultimate moral dilemma for Samuel as he hesitates between accepting it and handing it over to the authority of the country, which the man seems to fear most. Should Samuel be a selfish human being and preserve the fact of his solitary condition on the island? Or should he accept the new reality of cohabitation? We are waiting for the last page to find out.

Finding an answer to these questions is what forms the backbone of Jennings’ story, short of this year’s Booker Prize nominations. From a distance, it may seem that such a light premise – but heavy in the ethical considerations of its character – cannot become a novel. A new one, maybe. But due to Jennings’ attention to detail and memory, the story is backed up by 182 suspenseful pages.

Samuel is a complex character. Sometimes he is sympathetic, for his habit of carefully burying the dead and protecting them with stones and rocks so that hungry gulls cannot gnaw at their bodies. Other times, one cannot help but despise him for rejecting the chances of redemption, for being part of the communal tension, for being a selfish revolutionary blinded by utopian zeal, among others. At first he is polite to the refugee, even if he speaks with weak signs due to the language barrier. As the story continues, tension builds up on the island due to a series of dangerous communication issues between them, and with each passing second, Samuel is made more aware of the walls of her loneliness that is cracking. “Inside him, something small and bent started to move. It opened up outward, getting bigger and bigger… Until it got brittle and creaked with it.

The brightest aspect of this novel is how, through his regular interactions with humans, Samuel’s past life springs from the depths of his memory, triggered by windows, keys, doors, the behavior of the man, etc. In the process, we see a version of Samuel who had to face difficult circumstances that so resolutely turned him into loneliness.

Moreover, under these circumstances, an unnamed African country is stretching out before us, a country that first overflowed with hope when independence came and which ultimately fell out with the rise of dictatorship and government. deviant nationalism. The ghostly shadows of colonialism, inequality, poverty, heady optimism and harsh realities echo Samuel’s past. It has a dynamic impact on the reading experience – I felt calm as I read the passages taking place on the island, and I felt choked (but not in a bad way) of despair as I browsed Samuel’s past – marked by a lot of begging and torture in prison cells, among other things. The result: No page is likely to get bored and bored you.

Bewitching like a fable, The Island reveals, through artful pieces of symbolism, the prejudices that govern the lives of migrants, the dangers of loneliness, the vicious circle and the powerful legacy of violence.

Shah Tazrian Achrafi is a contributor.


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