In an interview with The Guardian after her novel, An Island, was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021, South African writer Karen Jennings clarified the premise of her book. “I don’t believe in reducing Africa to a single country. But in this case, I wanted to use an allegorical means to examine a very complex issue,” she said. “To take what has been done to Africa in various forms over the centuries, and examine that in a very simple way with just…two protagonists.”
The association of the word “issue” with fiction tends to be scoffed at but Jennings liberates it from its trappings of activism. An Island is fiction at its most masterly—sparse, hard-hitting, daring, as finely hewn as a knife.
The protagonist, an elderly man called Samuel, lives on the eponymous island, unnamed but likely somewhere along the coast of Africa. Nominally a lighthouse keeper, he has wished this exile on himself to be far from the bustle of the mainland, with only chickens for company. Once a fortnight, a boat brings provisions, food and knick-knacks rejected by others. With this jilted squalor of other lives, he fortifies his existence.
Samuel believes himself to be the lord of all he surveys, though, like King Lear on the heath, he is infirm of body and spirit. Into this solitary empire, a man is spat out by the sea, almost dead, most likely one of the refugees trying to flee his war-torn homeland in boats. It is around the dynamics between this Friday-like stranger to Samuel’s Crusoe, like J.M. Coetzee’s novel Foe, that Jennings weaves her story.
Having no common language, this odd couple communicate through gestures, which open up chasms of misunderstanding, leading to suspicion and violence. Along the way, Jennings also gives flashbacks into Samuel’s past—his life of abject poverty riven by dictatorships, failed revolutions and a prison term, ending with his final refuge on the island. The prose is layered with metaphors—for colonisation, xenophobia, trauma and resistance.
It’s tempting to imagine the island as a symbol of imperial ambitions, though the idea of Samuel, thwarted all the way by life, as an oppressor is also risible. If anything, An Island reveals the shifting sands of power and the persistence of inequality, even among the most wretched. Like her great literary forbearers—Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer and Coetzee—Jennings makes bold this ineradicable truth.