An Island by Karen Jennings explores themes of loneliness, friendship and revolution in Africa.
An Island follows Samuel, who lives alone on an island managing the lighthouse. A refugee is washed up on the shore of the boat, and this triggers memories for him about his past life on the mainland. He grew up in Africa under the colonialists and helped his country fight for independence — only to see it fall under the rule of a cruel dictator instead. He spent 25 years in prison before finding the job looking after the lighthouse. Samuel’s story is set over four days, switching between the present day and his past.
“Do you remember the victory parade, after the coup? All that expense and show?”
“Of course I remember it,” Disciple said. He smiled, tapped a finger lightly on one of the cell bars. “I was there. He freed us, brought us salvation from a president who had betrayed us all. A president who had put his cronies in positions of power and who then went on to take everything for themselves. All the rest, the people, and everything else, it was all forgotten.”
“How is that different from the Dictator and his motorcade full of his brothers and friends and cousins? He placed them in positions of power too. How is that different? And all the people he murdered?”
An Island switches between Samuel’s life now and his life in the past. This was done really well and I didn’t find it confusing or difficult to follow at all. He thinks back on his past life, growing up in Africa. He has seen the country go from being controlled by colonialists to being controlled by a Dictator, and spent 25 years in prison. After he was released, his sister helped him to find his current job as the lighthouse caretaker. A supply boat visits every two weeks, but otherwise, he is alone.
Because of this, Samuel is now used to being isolated. On his only attempt to visit the mainland, he had a panic attack at the thought of being around lots of people. His life is quite hard to read at times and utterly heartbreaking — both seeing how the country changes (but doesn’t really change at all), and the time with family he misses out on by being in prison. These parts of the book I found incredibly sad and moving.
His relationship with the stranger is also really interesting. The refugee doesn’t speak his language and so they struggle to communicate — there are several times when this causes misunderstandings. I would love to know what the stranger was trying to say at some of the points in the book.
While this book talks a lot about loneliness and isolation, I also felt that Karen did a fantastic job of portraying the themes around colonialism and dictatorship. Samuel and his friends live in poverty growing up. He also struggles with the conflict and political changes, and where he stands. I really enjoyed these aspects of the book and it made it so much more than just a book about a man in a lighthouse.
Overall this is a fantastic read — there was so much more to the story than I had anticipated. Karen has written an intriguing character-led story that packs a lot into its 182 pages! I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading character-driven stories or has an interest in Africa and its history.
The blurb for An Island
Samuel has lived alone for a long time; one morning he finds the sea has brought someone to offer companionship and to threaten his solitude…
A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled, Samuel is soon swept up in memories of his former life on the mainland: a life that saw his country suffer under colonisers, then fight for independence, only to fall under the rule of a cruel dictator; and he recalls his own part in its history. In this new man’s presence he begins to consider, as he did in his youth, what is meant by land and to whom it should belong. To what lengths will a person go in order to ensure that what is theirs will not be taken from them?
A novel about guilt and fear, friendship and rejection; about the meaning of home.
About the author, Karen Jennings
Karen Jennings is a South African author. She holds Masters degrees in both English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, and a PhD in English Literature from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Her debut novel, Finding Soutbek, was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for African Fiction. In 2014 her short story collection, Away from the Dead, was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International short story competition. Her memoir, Travels with my Father, was published in 2016, and in 2018 she released her debut poetry collection, Space Inhabited by Echoes.
Karen is currently living in Brazil with her Brazilian husband, and last year completed post-doctoral research at the Federal University of Goiás on the historical relationship between science and literature, with a focus on eusocial insects. In September 2019 her new novel, Upturned Earth, will be published by Holland Park Press.
Karen is also affiliated with the mentorship programmes run by Writivism and Short Story Day Africa, both of which promote writing in Africa. Broadly speaking, Karen’s interests lie in colonialism, historically and in the lasting impact that it has had on the continent of Africa and beyond. She is particularly concerned with the quiet lives of the everyday people who have been mostly forgotten by the politicians, big businesses and the rest of the world. In this way, she strives to give the ordinary a voice that can be heard and appreciated.
You can follow Karen on Amazon through her Amazon author page.
About An Island
The idea for An Island came to Karen during an afternoon nap at a writers’ residency she was attending in Denmark in 2015. In her sleep, she saw an old man, fiercely defending his island against interlopers.
At the time, there was a vast amount in the news about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, which extended to what became known as Europe’s Refugee Crisis. There was a great global outcry against xenophobic responses and calls for humanitarian aid for Syria’s refugees. At the same time, there was almost nothing about refugees from Africa – not about what drove them to flee their nations, or what their dreadful experiences were, nor about their deaths or their futures.
Karen chose to explore the relationship between refugee and landowner, but within an African setting, where xenophobia is as rife as in Europe, though it often manifests itself in different ways despite largely being born of colonialism.
By reducing the action of the narrative to two characters, Karen felt that a complex issue could be rendered in simple ways that allowed for a focus on individual experiences.
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