NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS’ CHOICE • LONGLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE • A “beautifully and sparingly constructed” (The New York Times) novel about a lighthouse keeper with a mysterious past, and the stranger who washes up on his shores—An Island is the American debut of a major voice in world literature.
“An Island by Karen Jennings is quite simply a revelation—a ferocious, swift chess game of a novel.”—Paul Yoon, author of Run Me to Earth
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Vulture
Samuel has lived alone on an island off the coast of an unnamed African country for more than two decades. He tends to his garden, his lighthouse, and his chickens, content with a solitary life. Routinely, the nameless bodies of refugees wash ashore, but Samuel—who understands that the government only values certain lives, certain deaths—always buries them himself.
One day, though, he finds that one of these bodies is still breathing. As he nurses the stranger back to life, Samuel—feeling strangely threatened—is soon swept up in memories of his former life as a political prisoner on the mainland. This was a life that saw his country exploited under colonial rule, followed by a period of revolution and a brief, hard-won independence—only for the cycle of suffering to continue under a cruel dictator. And he can’t help but recall his own shameful role in that history. In this stranger’s presence, he begins to consider, as he did in his youth: What does it mean to own land, or to belong to it? And what does it cost to have, and lose, a home?
A timeless and gripping portrait of regret, terror, and the extraordinary stakes of companionship, An Island is a story as page-turning as it is profound.
South African writer Jennings's unsettling U.S. debut explores a lighthouse keeper's legacy of terror and tragedy. Samuel lives a quiet and isolated life on an island off the coast of an unnamed African country. Though he's regularly visited by a supply boat, he has little contact with the outside world. His life is hard: he breaks rocks to maintain the sea wall and tends a small vegetable garden and a few chickens. He also buries the bodies of refugees who sometimes wash ashore. One morning he discovers a man washed up on the beach who is still breathing. He hides the stranger in his cottage when the supply boat comes, and soon the refugee's presence triggers Samuel's painful memories of torture as a political prisoner, and he grows more and more paranoid, convinced the man intends to displace him. With shifts to Samuel's horrific past, Jennings shows his suffering and the compounded losses of family and country. Though some readers are sure to be upset by the shocking ending, Jennings succeeds at revealing what made her protagonist's heart so dark, and his path to redemption so twisted. There's little hope to be found here, but the author harnesses an undeniable power with this unflinching gaze into the abyss.
Waste of time
Fortunately this book is short (157 e- book “pages”). It is well-written and the surprise beginning quickly gives way to flash backs of the life of an old man who is now presumably watching a Lighthouse on a deserted island. His youth was spent in a revolutionary army uprising against an unknown dictator in an unknown land. Regrets from his youth play out with the ponderous “present-day” plot. The somewhat predictable ending left me thinking, “ What did I read and what was the message?” I am sorry but I didn’t get it.