Sunday, August 29, 2021

An Island, by Karen Jennings


Holland House Books, 2019
179 pp


"... he would not leave; he would never leave. The land was his always." 

The first time I read about this book after its placement on this year's Booker Prize longlist, I knew I had to have it, and I absolutely knew within the first few pages of reading it that this was a book that I was going to love, given its subject matter.  The surprise was just how very much it crawled under my skin. 

It was the blurb that sold me on this book:  
"... 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..."

Samuel, in his seventies now,  had been used to discovering bodies washing up on the island over the over the last twenty-three years he's been living there; this  "young refugee" is the latest  in a series of thirty-two "nameless, unclaimed others."   At first, officials would come out to look for bodies, to "find all those who suffered under the Dictator"  so that now the nation could  "move forward," but as time went on and more bodies came to shore, officials brushed them off as possibly "another country's refugees," now unwanted.   Samuel was told to do what he wanted with them; it was not the government's problem.   This time around though, Samuel was surprised to find the man alive.  Planning to send him back on the supply boat coming the next day, Samuel takes the man into his cottage, feeding him and giving him warm clothing,  just waiting until "the island was his again."  However, even though they don't speak the same language,  the refugee panics at the sight of the supply boat before its arrival, and begs Samuel for help. Samuel recognizes something in that plea for help, and the other man is there, it seems, to stay.  His presence there rekindles bits of Samuel's memory of his pre-island days; memories that were "things best forgotten now approaching as steadily as waves approach the shore."  As more of his past is revealed, in the present he wavers between trust and paranoia toward the stranger, the latter growing steadily as he wonders about this man's true intentions.  

To say too much more about this novel would be criminal; I will only reveal that even though this story is less than two hundred pages long, there is much to unpack here, including the upheavals in ordinary people's lives as they suffer through political strife and struggle, and the emotional and physical tolls that remain as a result.  As the memories come back, so too does Samuel's awareness of the humiliation he'd suffered over the years, and he comes to the realization that this "land was his, always."  Soon  the presence of this outsider becomes untenable; this is Samuel's  home, and no one will take it from him. 

As bleak as this book is, as allegorical as it may be, it is a beautifully-written, insightful novel that begins rather quietly before readers are abruptly jolted back into the past, returned to the present, and jolted back again.   I'm wondering if these interruptions are meant to somehow mirror Samuel's mind, as it is certain interactions between him and the stranger which cause these memories to come to him, something as simple as the sight of a flower that the other man has made from odd bits laying around Samuel's cottage.  It can make for reading distraction,  but Samuel's past has a direct connection to what will eventually happen in his present.  I love the way the author set this all up, including the early foreshadowing  that sets the atmosphere, and then the slowly-building drama that results from Samuel's somewhat broken memories of the past.  And do pay attention to the red hen, although I won't say why.  There's so much more, of course, but this is truly a novel to be experienced.  

 Don't let the short length of  An Island  fool you -- it is a powerhouse of a novel that even now, several days after finishing it, is still haunting me.  

I am recommending it to everyone I know. 

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