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An Island: A tale of intersecting lives

Kinshuk Gupta | Updated on: May 03, 2022

Invasion is a pervasive theme in Karen Jennings’ slim but ambitious novel, longlisted for the Booker prize,

For Samuel, the protagonist, accustomed to a mute life on a remote island, the presence of a half-drowned man with a beating pulse becomes the tipping point. For the next four days—the entire span of the novel—the lives of these two men with an African ancestry intersect in interesting ways.

Karen Jenning’s slim but ambitious novel, An Island, was longlisted for the Booker prize, despite being published by a smaller press while the list was dominated by titles from Penguin Random House and Faber and Faber.

Jennings, in one of her interviews, speaks about the estrangement she experienced during the course of writing this novel. Locked up inside her home in a conservative city of Brazil, where people spoke in a foreign tongue and applauded the right-wing politics, she began to draw parallels between her and Samuel’s life. An erstwhile government informer and self-proclaimed “coward”, Samuel has been living on the island devoid of any humans except the two boatmen who bring him food supplies every fortnight for 23 years. He tends to his vegetable garden, feeds the clutch of chickens, and buries the corpses that are washed ashore. He informed the authorities when he saw the first one. To which they asked about the skin colour, and later admonished him that they are only interested in the corpses that depict the brutality of foreign rule.

One discovers that her writing relies heavily on details (almost half a page is dedicated to the ritual of washing vegetables for dinner) and sounds gritty, to the point of being almost mechanical. It might bore a reader, but also delivers the acute sense of loneliness and boredom pervading Samuel’s life. Her skillful writing distracts us from the macabre symbols (red hen, a wall bulging with corpses) to which we are introduced in the initial chapters.

“The drum was plastic, the blue of worker’s overalls, and remained in sight, bobbing in the flow, during his hastening to the shore. The body he saw only once he arrived. He side-stepped it, walking a tight circle around the drum. It was fat as a President.”

Even when he knows that the man is alive, Samuel is more bothered about the plastic drum and its possible use.

He is reluctant to save the man without a name, thinking of him as an intruder in his orderly life, who might snatch the island—his home—from him.

Invasion remains a pervasive theme throughout the entire novel. Samuel desperately tries to bar things from entering his territory—thrashing sea waves, weeds that grow after they have been plucked. This is justified for Samuel, a man who has witnessed his country being plundered first by colonisers, and later by the dictator.

Sharing the island with the interloper, who doesn’t know his language or show any signs of friendship but is also reluctant to leave, unearths Samuel’s fears. In a series of flashbacks that might read as perfunctory, we are transported to Samuel’s visceral past. The past occurring in a fictitious African country is mostly generic—the poor family is forced to flee from the country and had to resort to begging and piecework; a young Samuel joins a political movement to uproot foreign dominance; his long and brutal incarceration under a dictatorial regime. However, there are moments of extraordinary realisation:

“That was what capture brought to him. It did not come with a sense of honour as he had been told it would, it did not come with pride. It brought only memories of humiliations and a feeling that it would all continue as it had. That all the past and future was here in this piss-drenched seat, from which he could not escape.”

I particularly enjoyed the sections where Jennings highlights the conflict between the father and the son over the evolving meaning of independence. When his girlfriend, Merie, is about to give birth to a baby girl, the father asks Samuel to christen her ‘independence.’ Samuel rebukes him by telling that his notion of independence is jaded as it pushed the country from a foreign rule to a dictatorship.

Samuel’s final act is a culmination of this violence and, paradoxically, a desperate and self-destructive protest against the triumph of cruelty in the world. The novel fiddles with pertinent questions about trauma, dispossession, and survival which have assumed a great heft in the contemporary world.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne’s quote fits well with Samuel. He, contrary to the cover image, is not limited to the solitude of an island. Inside him swirls the history of an entire continent.

( The reviewer is an award-winning poet from New Delhi. He is the Associate Editor for Usawa Literary Review and Poetry Editor for The Mithila Review and Jaggery Lit. )

About the Book
An Island
Karen Jennings
Holland House books/ Distributed in India by Pan MacMillan
Rs 315 (paperback)

Check out the book on Amazon

Published on May 03, 2022
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