An Island by Karen Jennings review – compact allegory of postcolonialism

South African Karen Jennings is the only writer published by a small press to make the Booker longlist. A short, thoroughly absorbing book, An Island’s principal action occurs over four days, yet within that timescale Jennings manages to compress the turbulent history of an unnamed African country and its disastrous effects on the life of one man, Samuel.

A lighthouse keeper in self-imposed exile on a tiny island off the mainland, 70-year-old Samuel is disciplined in his daily habits and unchanging in his means of self-sufficiency. He carefully tends his vegetable patch, his only companions a clutch of chickens, with the favourite – an old, vulnerable, red hen – kept away from the vicious larger group. The ultimate fate of the hen and its part in the book’s sudden and violent conclusion lies in the future, but it’s clear that all is not serene on this island.

Bodies lie buried in the garden – corpses that have, over the years, washed up on the shore. The significance of Samuel’s meticulous interment of each is to be found later in the narrative: this is a book of incremental revelations and insoluble ambiguities. The novel opens with discovery of one such body – that of a tall, thin man, clinging to an oil drum, which is, by contrast and in the scrupulously chosen language of the book, “as fat as a president”. Unlike the others, this body is alive. Samuel’s conflicting emotions towards the man, who does not speak his language – is he a fugitive, or a refugee? Does he intend friendship, or takeover? – merge with increasingly intrusive memories of his own less than honourable past back on the mainland, and reflect the current toxic discourse around asylum seekers.

Jennings creates an artful balance between the tense claustrophobia of the island and Samuel’s backstory and subsequent self-loathing. He had come of age in a country where “independence” eventually supplanted colonial rule, only for it to be subsumed into a military dictatorship. “So the map says who we are and where we are, but nobody ever asked us if it was right.” For his part in an uprising against the Dictator, he spends 25 years in prison, despite his routine denunciations of his comrades, which did not spare his lover. This wider aspect of the novel recalls themes of last year’s Booker-shortlisted This Mournable Body by the Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga; the difference here is that Jennings, a white author, is writing from the perspective of black characters. Jennings has said she worries “very much” about cultural appropriation: “The one thing I have tried to do in my writing is to be very sensitive to who it is that I give voice to.”

The stranger on the island, then, is – rather too simplistically – a symbol of reparation and possible redemption for Samuel, who now has no one and nothing except this land, which he does not even own. He does not relinquish the man, as he should, to the supply boat from the mainland that arrives every fortnight; yet his profound lack of trust will be the novel’s deciding factor. 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.

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