An Island – Karen Jennings

I’m so behind with the reading this summer (house move/job move etc) that I’ve had to accept defeat on reading all the Booker longlisted titles. All I can hope for now is that Klara and the Sun, Light Perpetual (which I loved but seemingly didn’t get round to reviewing – that opening section is just so good), and An Island make it onto the shortlist so that half of the final titles are already under the reading belt. And I think all three fully deserve a place, not least Jennings’ ‘surprise’ success for the small publishing house which was willing to take a risk on her when others weren’t. More fool them, etc.

An Island is, on the face of it, a compellingly simple tale of Samuel, a lighthouse keeper who is more or less abandoned (out of choice) to his role on an island and removed from the political turmoil of his homeland. His country of birth is not named, but we learn that it has struggled to gain independence from colonial rule before being caught up in a military coup. Bodies of refugees have washed up before but events in the novel begin as a man, still just alive, is discovered on the beach. Given his past, which unfolds slowly through a series of memories, it’s not surprising that Samuel is unnerved by the new arrival to his isolated space, and over four days the two men negotiate their way around each other. The threat of violence is ever-present, lending the small space an even greater sense of claustrophobia. The lack of specific geographical details gives Jennings’ story of ownership and fear of intrusion a universality, whilst the use of a lighthouse keeper as the main character allows Jennings to remove her protagonist from society, heightening our focus on this one lone individual.

‘Was it to go on like this, then? This incessant movement in his home. The home that had been his alone for more than two decades of solitude. Was it to be this? This breath, this pulse, this youth, this life, taking over the small cottage, seeping into the floor and the walls. He began to feel breathless, to gasp his panic.’

It’s a reminder of how much human action is driven by fear of others, and it’s the simplicity of the narrative that allows this to come through all so clearly. The outcome is unpredictable, reflecting the way that fear feeds fear.

As I do every year, I fall in love with writing that I’m convinced should take its rightful place on the shortlist. This time, I really hope I’m right about this one! Hurrah for small presses willing to take a punt on an outsider.

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