Review: An Island by Karen Jennings (2020)

Blurb

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.

Review

I was delighted to see Karen Jennings on the Booker Prize longlist – I read one of her books last year (it was one of the very first review copies I was ever sent, in fact!) and thought her writing was brilliant and urgent. Having really enjoyed Upturned Earth, I was obviously going to buy myself a copy of An Island asap!

It did not disappoint – for a shortish novel, it packs a hell of a punch. Jennings gives me Nadine Gordimer vibes – the writing is sharp, precise, politically unflinching, and I found it impossible to stop reading An Island. The prose and the setting pull you in – it is gripping in an almost nightmarish way, the boundaries between reality and delusion becoming blurred, the descriptions visceral and bloodied. Samuel’s life on the island may be physically removed from his past on the mainland, but the echoes of history reach him even on its shores. I liked the deliberate vagueness of the setting – it reminded me of The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, and has that same effect of universalising a specific political experience, as if to say, this could happen anywhere.

Despite being a story that ostensibly takes place across only four days, there is such a weight and burden of past events pressing down on the narrative – the tension is subtly but hugely effectively ramped up as the book moves towards its conclusion, and I found myself holding my breath at various points. It gets really dark towards the end (which regular readers of my blog – hi both – will know I am a big fan of!) and the nightmarish sensation builds up beautifully.

This book is uncomfortable, urgent, powerful, wonderfully intricate and deceptively complex. I am not at all surprised at its Booker longlisting, and I’ll be interested to see, once I have read more of the list, whether I end up feeling it should have gone even further. I suspect I shall. Highly recommended, especially if you like literature that hits you with a powerful thump.

An Island by Karen Jennings is published by Holland House and is available to purchase here.

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