Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 4, 2021

An Island, by Karen Jennings

The Island is a perfect choice for #NovNov (Novellas in November) because it’s an ideal example of the form.  With taut prose, action that takes place over just four days and just two main characters, it shows what can be done in under 200 pages. And because its setting is mostly confined to an unnamed island in an unspecified geographical area, it’s a profound allegory about the failures of postcolonialism as we see it in Africa, in South America, parts of Asia and in the post Soviet states.

Samuel is an old man living in solitude on a lighthouse long neglected by the authorities.  A supply ship visits the island fortnightly but his needs are simple and his facilities are rudimentary to say the least.

From time to time, bodies wash up on the shore.  Although this is a universal story of postcolonial corruption and brutality, the initial interest in recovering these bodies from the authorities resonates with the hopes of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — because once they’ve found the bodies, that’s the time when the healing will begin, for the nation, for us all.  But before long, the tone changes.  The woman to whom Samuel reports the discovery of three bodies wants to know what colour they are.

‘What I am asking is, are they darker than us — their skin — that is what I want to know. Are they darker than you or me?’

‘I think so.’

‘And their faces?  Are they longer? What are their cheekbones like?’

‘I don’t know.  They’re children.  They look like children.’

‘Listen, we’re busy people.  We have real crimes to deal with.  Actual atrocities, you understand.  We cannot come out to the island every time another country’s refugees flee and drown.  It’s not our problem.’ (p.7)

One day a survivor washes up on the shore, and Samuel is confronted by having to share his very limited resources, and by the invasion of his privacy and solitude.  Although they cannot communicate because they have no shared language, Samuel speculates about the man and this triggers escalating memories of his past.  He remembers his father’s pride in the independence he had fought for, and his refusal to acknowledge that independence had brought corruption and extravagant display and not the expected improvements in the standard of living for ordinary people.  He remembers his own reluctance to get involved in protest, and his repugnance for violence.  And what fear can make a man do.

He also remembers a wife and child, and all that he lost during 25 years in prison, including his own self-respect and integrity.

Misunderstandings exacerbated by Samuel’s guilty memories accrue, and he begins to fear the stranger…

An Island is the third novel by Karen Jennings, a South African novelist living in Brazil.  There is an illuminating interview with her on the Booker Prize website.  There she says that what she wanted to achieve was

…to try to understand what impact socio-political events and the legacy of those events might have on an individual. Samuel is not a good man, nor is he a bad man. He is simply ordinary. How has the past imposed itself on him? How does it make him feel about who he is and what his place in the world is?

See also this excellent review at LitNet site in South Africa.

Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for hosting Novellas in November.

Author: Karen Jennings
Title: An Island
Cover design by Chong W H
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781922458490, pbk., 182 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $29.99


  1. And straight onto my library list!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d like to read this as I’ve read her two previous novels. She’s certainly interested in politics and social justice.


    • Ah yes, you have, and *drat* I still hadn’t chased up copies of those two, I bet they’ll be hard to find now.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] An Island by Kate Jennings (Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers) […]


  4. This and The Promise were the two Booker contenders I was most interested in reading. I really like the sound of this,


  5. […] An Island by Karen Jennings (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]


  6. This sounds like it tackles huge themes really effectively, which is so impressive considering it’s length. I’ve not read this author but I’ll look out for her.


    • It’s really good. Sue at Whispering Gums has two others by Jennings, so you might want to check them out at her blog too.


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