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How Does a Man Become an Island?

AN ISLAND, by Karen Jennings

It may not be a sure thing, but it’s a good bet: If you write a work of fiction that forgoes a redemptive arc or happy ending, and you also happen to be a woman, sooner or later you’ll get asked the question that’s not unlike being told to smile by passers-by on a sidewalk: Why darkness?

Why, gentle sister, did you not choose the path of light?

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The South African author Karen Jennings’s novel “An Island,” her first to be published in the United States, is about an old man named Samuel living in isolation as a lighthouse keeper after a hardscrabble life in an unspecified country somewhere in the south of the continent. The novel articulates a perfectly simple and genuine answer to the above question and neatly heads it off at the pass — history, brother. History.

Samuel grows up poor after his family is violently evicted from its land by rampaging, scorched-earth colonists, and is forced to resort to begging to scrape together a sustenance in the city to which they flee. His father then fights for independence and in the process is permanently disabled. Despite the movement’s victory, the postcolonial corruptions of power turn out to produce new bosses who, despite a cynical veneer of populism, are much the same as the old.

Though he doesn’t go so far as to kill, a young Samuel gets swept up into a destructive “culling” of foreigners in the city — a xenophobic massacre incited by a general who will soon be a dictator — and his participation becomes one of many sources of deep shame. Eventually, following his peripatetic, halfhearted involvement in another revolutionary gesture, so ill conceived it ends up amounting to little more than a minor riot, Samuel spends 23 years in prison.

When he’s released at long last, the world outside has been transformed beyond recognition (not that he’d navigated it with any confidence to begin with). His estranged sister and her children treat him with contempt and cruelty, while the only woman he’s ever cared for romantically never held him in high esteem — and, decades later, is now an aging prostitute who barely remembers his name.

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So he takes refuge on a harbor island, where he exists in a kind of exhausted, solitary respite, performing his duties to the lighthouse, raising chickens, tending a small garden and maintaining the stone wall he’s built to demarcate his lonely domain, protecting it from incursions from the outside. When the occasional body of a refugee washes up on the shore, he adds it into the wall.

But when the novel opens, one of those washed-up bodies turns out not to be a corpse after all. By now a 70-year-old hermit who’s increasingly paranoid and delusional, Samuel spends the duration of the story contending with the alarming presence of this living newcomer — a man who, unlike so many others, treats him with a trust and even a kindness he can’t perceive or hope to return.

“An Island,” which was on the longlist for Britain’s Booker Prize in 2021, is beautifully and sparingly constructed. The sections in the narrative present are a tactile evocation of the natural and material world around these two men; and in the flashbacks to Samuel’s coming-of-age and then torturous captivity, Jennings renders a gritty and stripped-down portrait of the bleak family dynamics and social conditions that made him who he is.

As he struggles in past and present to dig himself out of the psychological ruts of poverty and desperation, moral polarities come to be reversed. “What might he have been if he had been braver,” Samuel used to ask himself as he walked around the city at night, “if he hadn’t been afraid of murder?”Both in the city and on 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 brittle and compromised to confront the evidence that his own sacrifice has resulted in the same abuses of power he once fought to eliminate, sees the bare tin walls of despotism and stubbornly calls them gold.

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In Jennings’s hands, this antihero’s enmeshment in his own failures has a textured credibility that’s hard to look away from. At every turn he disappoints himself, as well as others; at every turn these disappointments settle atop each other like the bodies he buries beneath the stones.

“An Island” is a character study with the cross-cultural resilience of a fable, like Kobo Abe’s “The Woman in the Dunes,” operating on personal and symbolic planes at the same time.

How does a man turn into an island? Oppression and scarcity and disempowerment, yes; the bafflement of trying to form coherent selfhood without strong role models, certainly; and at the base, always, an absence of empathy and of love.

No plot summary can do justice to a story woven this carefully, whose strength lies in its deliberate pacing and sharp dispensation of detail. Samuel is as real as a shaking hand.

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AN ISLAND, by Karen Jennings | 210 pp. | Hogarth | $25

Lydia Millet is the author, most recently, of “A Children’s Bible.” Her next novel, “Dinosaurs,” will be published in October.

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