An Island by Karen Jennings: Book Review

An island story that can be applied to many countries

This is a recent novel about a lone lighthouse-keeper off the coast of some unspecified African country. As the author is South African, I read it alert for similarities to South Africa, where I lived for 25 years. It is now long-listed for the Booker Prize.

It is a taut tale of a lonely man who picks up, as he has sometimes done before, the corpse of a person drowned in the seas around the island on which the lighthouse is situated. Only this person is not dead, but gradually stirs to life, and needs to be given basic survival help: food, drink, a trip to the toilet. The keeper plans to hand him over to the authorities the next day, when his supply boat is due, but the man pleads to be hidden. He prefers to stay on the island, as he has a guilty secret.

Intrusion and personal space

In one way, this novel can be read as about intrusion and personal space. The lighthouse keeper has lived alone on the island for many years and resents this trespass on his routines. His living conditions are extremely basic, as the island is only a rocky outcrop and his accommodation is cramped and badly maintained.

There are sad descriptions of his pitiful kitchen chores, and resentment even over who has what plate. But this type of kitchen quarrel can spring up in urban flat-shares just as well as in a lighthouse. Why do we want to spend time reading about this somewhat depressive, probably autistic, individual? Almost no sex in the plot – just murder lurking menacingly, eyes on the knives.

Cultural Appropriation?

The Guardian reviewer hinted that the author had been criticised for “cultural appropriation.” How dare a white woman write about Black experience? Admittedly I caught myself casting a quizzical eye on some details of the keeper’s impoverished housekeeping (would he really bake bread daily rather than just make maize porridge?).

And the slum children sent out to beg – are these details from what is observable in Cape Town to those who donate, or are the family dynamics rather different? Whatever, Karen is at least an author who has worked at some of the details of observing deprivation with compassion. To disqualify such insights would be a shame.

The Guardian review pointed to the theme of migrants as a topical reason why, probably, this novel was long-listed for Booker. The migrants are coming in boats, more and more frequently, around that coast.

So is the theme of intrusion supposed to mirror the modern emotions towards migrants that are arising in many parts of the world? Somehow I did not find this convincing, possibly because migrants coming in boats and drowning off the coast are not the stories of Southern Africa, but of the Mediterranean or even the Kent coast.

However, some more realistic links to how refugees are treated in South Africa is put into this novel in the flashbacks to the keeper’s life, when he recalls how the foreigners were pushed out of their neighbourhood, violently. This is indeed what has happened in recent decades in the big cities.

The topics in this novel that I found most interesting is when the keeper reflects on the politics of his country. The sequence of the national history was dispossession by colonialism, followed by life in urban slums, then growing corruption, and finally a Dictatorship that Samuel as a young man demonstrated against and as a result received a long prison sentence. The government that followed the Dictator was liberal enough to release the prisoners, and have a parliament but, by the time of the Island Story, all was deteriorating:

“Did you hear about the mess in parliament? Absolute chaos. Corruption scandals everywhere, fraud, opposition parties protesting in the house. In the end they had to send in the military. All those years you spent in jail for standing up to the Dictator and now here we are again calling on the military. And, I’m sorry to say this to you but, to be honest, a lot of people there, on the mainland,, a lot of people miss those days. Yes, we were frightened, but the thing is that at least there was order, there wasn’t all this crime. Now it’s just a mess.”

Recurring nightmare of African politics

This mess described in the Island Story represents the recurring nightmare of African politics. I taught Nobel-prize winning Nadine Gordimer’s 1970 novel “A Guest of Honour” at the University of Botswana in 1976. It was by far the most popular book on the curriculum that year, and the lecture hall was packed. Botswana had gained independence only a few years before, and politically alert students were alarmed at the news of what was happening in other newly independent African countries.

Decades later, apartheid in South Africa gave way to free elections. There was a wave of euphoria in the early years of the ANC from 1994 when hundreds of new houses were being built for black families, and electricity lines being stretched to remote rural areas.

But sadly the stories of corruption got more frequent. Services, such as the Post Office, became dysfunctional: rubbish piled up in the towns of the Transkei, hijackings and farm murders happened more often, and electricity got rationed in schedules. The culprits in the looting of State funds are even now hard to bring before the courts.

We were exactly like you

The most searing remarks in The Island Story come from a reminiscence about the refugee couple who lived near them in the slums twenty-five years before:

“One morning he called to the couple across the road, waved his flag at them, said, ”I’m sorry that your story isn’t as happy as the one we have in this country, but I’m glad to give you a new and better life here.”
The woman smiled, but the man said, “It was like this for us too, uncle. I’m sorry to tell you that. We were exactly like you.”
Samuel’s father laughed, ”No, my friend, that isn’t possible. This is a free and democratic country. We’re independent, we have it all now. There will be no problems here. Your country did it the wrong way, you made mistakes.”
“Wait, uncle. You will see.”
“There’s nothing to see. You’re wrong, neighbour, very wrong.”

Countries swinging from populism to rule by the String Man

This Island Story is an insight not just from Africa but one that can be applied to many countries of the world that now find themselves swinging from populism to rule by the Strong Man.

…there will be no problems here… .
Wait, uncle, you will see… .