• Cathy Castling

Blog Tour: An Island by Karen Jennings

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

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 read and reviewed this book as part of the #damppebblesblogtours all of the views expressed below are my own.

An Island tells the tale of Samuel, a lonely lighthouse keeper type, who lives by himself on a secluded island. Having survived the violence that came with the end of colonisation in his country, a dictatorship and 25 years in prison, Samuel has nowhere to go and this empty island seems almost like paradise for him. Samuel is perfectly content spending his days constantly repairing his crumbling island home, until a body washes up on the shore… and this time, the person is still alive.

Karen Jennings has done an excellent job of telling Samuel's story as he reflects on his past in his old age. You learn about his personal history, the struggles he's been through, the violence he has experienced and the family he almost had. You start to really empathise with him; you can completely understand why he loves the solitude that his island brings him. The stranger who washes up on the island stays exactly that - a stranger. He and Samuel don't speak the same language, so only communicate (unsuccessfully) using gestures. The story is told from Samuel's point of view, so you never really find out who the stranger is and how he's ended up on the island. Not getting to know this stranger adds to novel’s general air of mystery and is quite a stark contrast compared to how much information we learn about Samuel. It's an interesting and intense read; you reflect with Samuel on the things he's done in his life and you start to empathise with him. The story is set over four days (with one chapter per day) and you move back and forth between the present day and the past without much warning. This turbulence and disruption in the plotline mimics that of Samuel’s life. However, Jennings has managed to weave Samuel's history and present together quite smoothly. You don't feel a big jolt each time you move between time periods.

Overall, I think An Island is an engaging story with a well-developed protagonist. I empathised with Samuel and I could quite easily understand why he valued his solitude on the island so much. Jennings dives deep into Samuel’s background and as the reader you get to know his quirks and behaviours. The end had quite a shocking twist – after getting to know Samuel as a fairly easy-going old man, his actions at the end of the book are almost unbelievable! I’d recommend An Island if you enjoyed stories like Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead.

Update: An Island by Karen Jennings was long listed for The Booker Prize 2021.


About Karen Jennings:

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 Goiás 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.

Social Media:

Amazon Author Page: https://amzn.to/34APCHt

Purchase Links:

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/34yMA6v

Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2Txw4h6

Waterstones: https://bit.ly/3jFmwuS

Holland House Books: https://bit.ly/3jyb0Br

Foyles: https://bit.ly/3e3DPog

Blackwells: https://bit.ly/2TtTF1Y

Publishing Information:

Published in hardcover, paperback and digital formats by Holland House Books on 12th November 2020

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