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An Island

by Karen Jennings

Karavan Press

In only 165 pages, SA author, Karen Jennings’s chilling little book has managed to capture the phycological damage caused to one man – and, by implication, thousands of others – by the rollercoaster ride of living a life of oppression under colonial rule, followed by the euphoria of Independence and then being plunged back into oppression, this time under the rule of corrupt politicians and dictators.

Set over the course of just four days and on a fictitious island somewhere off the coast of Africa, An Island introduces us to Samuel who is content with his solitary lighthouse keeper’s life away from humanity. He is disciplined in his daily routine, keeping the crumbling lighthouse going, tending his vegetable patch and caring for his chickens.   But his solitude is disrupted when he finds the body of a young man washed up on the shore – unconscious but alive.

The arrival of this stranger who speaks an incomprehensible foreign language unnerves Samuel.  Is he a friend or foe?  Refugee or fugitive?  The aging Samuel cannot tell if he can trust the man.  He is forced to revisit long-buried, painful memories and prejudices of his life on the mainland, including 25 years he served in prison for being caught up in the fervour of mob violence.   Through Samuel’s flashbacks, the author explores the devastating effects of colonialism, corruption, dictators, xenophobia and the fear of other and even the effects of global warming. The plight of refugees, of not belonging and the question of who owns the land all feature. “No man is an island” John Dunne’s classic poem lies at the base of this book and along with the many other famous island tales like Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies, the image of an island simply and succinctly gets the point across.

Long-listed for the 2021 Booker Prize, An Island is not a comfortable read but its simple language delivers its powerful, hard-hitting message carefully and with sensitivity.  You won’t get it out of your mind.  Incredibly illuminating and worth reading.  I hope An Island makes its way onto the high school literature curriculum.

This allegoric tale could be read as a warning of the long-lasting impact of fear, violence, depravity and poverty and, indeed, the role isolation plays in feeding those conditions – SA Sunday Times

An Island is a small but powerful book, with the reach of a more capacious work, compounding merciless political critique and allegory rendered in tender prose. – The Guardian

Exquisite in its simplicity – Nancy Richards, Woman Zone

This is a book that gives us faith that the Booker prize judges are doing their job… the dark horse of the longlist, released quietly by a micro-publisher, unreviewed in the press until now, so it shows the judges aren’t just guided by big names. –  London Sunday Times

“The far southern extremities of our planet produce remarkable, distilled, and ravaged tales. An Island has to be counted as among the most remarkable of these. Karen Jennings offers a chilling, immersive portrait of Samuel, a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the African continent. He is a man at the edge of history, until the arrival of a refugee stranger returns him to everything he most needs to forget. A gripping, terrifying and unforgettable story.”  — Elleke Boehmer

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