An Island by Karen Jennings #BookReview #BlogTour

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.

I'm delighted to be hosting the blog tour for An Island today. Many thanks to Karen Jennings, Holland House Books and Emma Welton from damppebbles blog tours for inviting me and for my advance copy of the novel.

At just 182 pages, An Island is a fairly short novel which takes place over just four days but actually spans years. The story is centred around Samuel, an older man who has spent many years living as the sole resident on an island where he is the lighthouse keeper.  He is used to various objects washing up on the beach and as the book opens he has spotted an oil drum on the shore through a lighthouse window. It's only as he reaches the beach that he realises the tide has also brought in the body of a refugee. It's not the first body he has dealt with - we learn there have been thirty-two corpses in his twenty-three years as lighthouse keeper - but this one has a pulse.
The new arrival proves to be a catalyst for Samuel's memories and the book constantly switches between past and present as he struggles to adapt to having another person living with him. The refugee doesn't speak the same language and so most communication between them is non-verbal which highlights both their similarities and differences.
Samuel's only other human contact comes from the boat which delivers supplies from the mainland and it becomes clear just how embedded he has become in his solitude when he recalls a trip back to the city which was once his home. Coming from an unnamed African country, much of Samuel's life has essentially been in the hands of others. He and his family were forced to flee their home in the country by colonial troops but even before this he had attended a mission school and subjected to a harsh regime growing vegetables and reciting lessons, with any boys who were adjudged not to have done so sufficiently put to work as human scarecrows tolling a bell for hours.
We discover very little about the refugee but his presence symbolises Samuel's own struggles against a state which imprisoned him for quarter of a century as a political prisoner. Although his father fought for independence, Samuel became disillusioned by the new regime which promised much but which resulted in the country being ruled by a Dictator as corrupt as the President. He recalls the public being encouraged to turn on refugees amidst divisive propaganda which is horribly familiar. As happens so often, refugees are made the scapegoats for the country's problems and too many people fall for the claims. 
Samuel's memories reveal him to have been somewhat of a drifter who doesn't appear to have had any particularly strong opinions at first and who allows himself to be caught up with the fevered emotions of others but eventually he too has become as possessive over his land as anybody else. The vivid descriptions of life on the island capture the rhythm of Samuel's days; he tends his vegetable patch, feeds the chickens and prepares his stew and while there is comforting familiarity to his life, there is also an underlying loneliness which perhaps explains why he shelters a man he knows nothing about.
His resentment and fear of the outsider is entirely understandable yet also devastatingly poignant. These are two men who don't understand each other but both are outsiders, shaped then shunned by much of a violent society because of who they are or where they come from. An Island is a powerful exploration of humanity's complex relationship with each other, meaning the universal need to connect with others is constantly threatened by suspicion and frequently misplaced anger. Karen Jennings' book is an affecting read - this empathetic, evocative novel is a thought-provoking look at themes which affect us all, regardless of where we come from. 

An Island was published by Holland House Books on 12th November 2020 and can be purchased from the following; Amazon UK, Amazon US, Waterstones, Holland House Books, Foyles, Blackwells.

Don't miss the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

Karen Jennings is a South African author. She holds Masters degrees in both English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, and a PhD in English Literature from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her debut novel, Finding Soutbek, was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for African Fiction. In 2014 her short story collection, Away from the Dead, was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International short story competition. Her memoir, Travels with my Father, was published in 2016, and in 2018 she released her debut poetry collection, Space Inhabited by Echoes. Karen is currently living in Brazil with her Brazilian husband, and last year completed post-doctoral research at the Federal University of Goi├ís on the historical relationship between science and literature, with a focus on eusocial insects. In September 2019 her new novel, Upturned Earth, will be published by Holland Park Press. Karen is also affiliated with the mentorship programmes run by Writivism and Short Story Day Africa, both of which promote writing in Africa. Broadly speaking, Karen’s interests lie in colonialism, historically and in the lasting impact that it has had on the continent of Africa and beyond. She is particularly concerned with the quiet lives of the everyday people who have been mostly forgotten by the politicians, big businesses and the rest of the world. In this way, she strives to give the ordinary a voice that can be heard and appreciated. 
The idea for An Island came to Karen during an afternoon nap at a writers’ residency she was attending in Denmark in 2015. In her sleep, she saw an old man, fiercely defending his island against interlopers. At the time, there was a vast amount in the news about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, which extended to what became known as Europe’s Refugee Crisis. There was a great global outcry against xenophobic responses and calls for humanitarian aid for Syria’s refugees. At the same time, there was almost nothing about refugees from Africa – not about what drove them to flee their nations, or what their dreadful experiences were, nor about their deaths or their futures. Karen chose to explore the relationship between refugee and landowner, but within an African setting, where xenophobia is as rife as in Europe, though it often manifests itself in different ways despite largely being born of colonialism. By reducing the action of the narrative to two characters, Karen felt that a complex issue could be rendered in simple ways that allowed for a focus on individual experiences.


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