AN ISLAND, by Karen Jennings
It may not be certain, but it’s a good guess: if you’re writing a fictional work that forgoes a redeeming arc or a happy ending, and you happen to be a woman too, sooner or later you’ll get the question that no more than that one is told to smile by passers-by on a sidewalk: why darkness?
Why, dear sister, have you not chosen the path of light?
South African writer Karen Jennings’ novel ‘An Island’, her first published in the United States, is about an old man named Samuel who lives in seclusion as a lighthouse keeper after a difficult life in an unspecified country somewhere in the south of the continent. The novel articulates a perfectly simple and sincere answer to the above question and neatly derives it from the pass – history, brother. History.
Growing up poor after his family is violently evicted from their land by rampaging scorched earth settlers, Samuel is forced to resort to begging to provide food in the city they flee to. His father then fights for independence and is permanently disabled. Despite the movement’s victory, the postcolonial corruptions of power appear to be spawning new bosses who, despite a cynical veneer of populism, are much the same as the old ones.
Though he doesn’t go as far as to kill, a young Samuel is swept up in a destructive “cull” of foreigners in the city – a xenophobic massacre instigated by a general soon to become a dictator – and his participation becomes one of many sources of deep shame. Finally, after his itinerant, half-hearted involvement in another revolutionary gesture, so ill-conceived that it ends up being little more than a minor riot, Samuel spends 23 years in prison.
When he is finally released, the outside world is transformed beyond recognition (not that he had gone through it with any confidence to begin with). His estranged sister and her children treat him with contempt and cruelty, while the only woman he ever cared for romantically never held him in high esteem—and decades later, he’s now an elderly prostitute who barely remembers his name.
So he takes refuge on a harbor island, where he lives in a sort of exhausted, solitary tranquility, performing his lighthouse duties, raising chickens, tending a small garden, and maintaining the stone wall he built to complete his lonely domain. beacon, protecting it from outside incursions. When a refugee’s occasional body washes up on the shore, he adds it to the wall.
But when the novel begins, one of those washed up bodies turns out not to be a corpse after all. Now a 70-year-old hermit who becomes increasingly paranoid and delusional, Samuel spends the duration of the story grappling with the alarming presence of this living newcomer – a man who, unlike so many others, treats him with confidence and even kindness. he cannot perceive or hope to return.
Long-listed for the British Booker Prize in 2021, An Island is beautifully built and sparsely built. The sections in the story are a tangible evocation of the natural and material world around these two men; and in flashbacks to Samuel’s coming of age and then torturous imprisonment, Jennings provides a rough and stripped-down portrait of the bleak family dynamics and social circumstances that made him who he is.
As he struggles past and present to dig himself out of the psychological rut of poverty and despair, moral polarities are reversed. “What would he have been if he had been braver,” Samuel always wondered as he walked through the city at night, “if he hadn’t been afraid of murder?” In both the city and the island, he lives in the distorting shadow of a cowardice he first witnessed in his father – a denial of the reality of political betrayal, a disintegration of ideals. His father, too frail and compromised to face the evidence that his own sacrifice led to the same abuse of power he once fought to eradicate, sees the bare tin walls of despotism and stubbornly calls them gold.
In the hands of Jennings, this antihero’s entanglement in his own failures has a structured credibility that’s hard to look at. Each time he disappoints himself and others; at each turn these disappointments pile up like the bodies he buries under the stones.
“An Island” is a character study with the cross-cultural resilience of a fable, such as Kobo Abe’s “The Woman in the Dunes”, which works simultaneously on personal and symbolic levels.
How does a man turn into an island? Oppression and scarcity and powerlessness, yes; the bewilderment of trying to form a coherent personality without strong role models, sure; and at the root, always, an absence of empathy and love.
No plot summary can do justice to a story so carefully woven and whose strength lies in its deliberate pace and sharp distribution of detail. Samuel is as real as a trembling hand.
AN ISLAND, by Karen Jennings | 210 pages | Hogarth | $25
Lydia Millet is most recently the author of ‘A Children’s Bible’. Her next novel, ‘Dinosaurs’, will be published in October.