Review: A whole other world on ‘An Island’
Reviewer: Mariam Abdullahi
Title: An Island
Author: Karen Jennings
When I picked up a copy of ‘An Island’ by Karen Jennings, I had already read about it here and there on the internet. It had made it onto the longlist for the 2021 Booker Prize, and was also on a good number of must-read lists. I was already aware that I had an interesting novel in my hands, but nothing I had read or heard about it prepared me for the kind of story that awaited me within its pages. It is an artful balance that the writer strikes within the confines of the island, and the main character’s dark history. Nigerians might find some familiarity in the situation of a country where independence is won from colonisers, but is tragically swallowed by a military dictatorship.
The plot of ‘An Island’ is simple, or so it seems: A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but 70-year-old Samuel, a 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.
We read about how Samuel’s family – while enduring the aforementioned tyrant’s rule – is drawn into their country’s struggle for freedom. Events unfold, and he finds himself in dire straits, almost literally, after which he is freed into a society he cannot recognise anymore, leading him to the job of lighthouse keeper on the remote, titular island. For me, the best parts of this story are those which have Samuel questioning his reality, and indeed his innocence, especially so after a nameless immigrant is washed onto the island’s shores, disrupting our protagonist’s newfound version of a peaceful if haunted life.
And it is at this point that Jennings’ true mastery becomes crystal clear. The way at which the plot is paced is quite similar to that of a terse psychological thriller, replete with intrigues, mystery, and even murder. The writer’s approach has her telling quite a tale without naming some characters and even some places. But rather than take anything away, it gives it quite an ‘applicable-ness’ that makes it work on an organic level. Interestingly, too, while her style is quite distinct and descriptive, it somehow still feels like a classic, only one which I have never read before.
My only disappointment with this book remains its length: clocking at a rather lean 200-plus pages, I did not want it to end. The characters and their stories – while deftly and satisfyingly told – all suggested we could have had more meat to the stories of their lives, and in some cases, even their death. But even at that, ‘An Island’ is a literary triumph which never takes its reader for granted. It may be short, but it remains powerful. Maybe it’s true that some disappointments are blessings, since due to its length – or lack of – the world Jennings brought to life in ‘An Island’ is one I will be returning to regularly, reread after reread.
Mariam Abdullahi, a Civil Engineer, lives in Abuja.