Karen Jennings’s taut, tenebrous novel describes what happens when Samuel, a septuagenarian lighthouse keeper and the sole inhabitant of a small island off the coast of an unnamed African country, acquires an uninvited houseguest. The claustrophobia of its setting is compounded by its timeframe, the main action taking place over just four days, yet its themes are expansive. Here is a tragic tale that grapples with colonialism, xenophobia and political resistance, along with the plight of displaced peoples.
Over the course of two solitary decades, Samuel has coaxed sustenance from the island’s inhospitable terrain. It’s backbreaking work, and still the rampant plant he names “smotherweed” reappears daily in his vegetable patch, his favourite red hen is pecked by her coop-mates, and sections of a drystone wall – his defence against the waves – cave in.
Its collapse is partly because Samuel has interred within it the bodies of drowned souls – refugees, he supposes – washed ashore with numbing regularity. There have been 32 so far, and the novel begins with the discovery of another. There’s one vital difference, tuttavia: this 33rd body has a pulse.
The newcomer remains more allegorical emblem than man, but as he regains his strength, Samuel – older, frailer – becomes acutely aware of his own vulnerability. Did he slip on the lighthouse stairs or was he tripped? With knives eyed and sledgehammers clutched ever more tightly, Jennings allows a question to take shape: who is the most likely aggressor in this combustible scenario?
The answer is more complex than you’d imagine, and draws on guilty memories that besiege Samuel with increasing intensity, entwining his own coming of age and ruined adulthood with his country’s fight for independence, the dictator it ushered in, and the headlong embrace of modernity that followed the regime’s ousting.
Jennings, a Cape Town millennial, is a published poet, and flashes of linguistic brio enliven a narrative that’s largely characterised by immense weariness of both body and soul. Other aspects of her identity – notably, her whiteness – complicate her endeavour.
An Island is the only small-press published novel on this year’s Booker prize longlist, and if its chances of making the final cut feel slender, its deft execution and the seriousness of its political engagement serve as a potent reminder of all that such titles add to the literary ecosystem. Those same qualities should also win it readers well beyond awards season.