Karen Jennings – An Island

This post is part of a series on novels longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. You can find a complete index here:

NB. This post discusses the entire novel; proceed at risk of spoilers.

This is the sixth novel I’ve read as part of the 2021 Booker Prize longlist marathon, and the first that has not been a pleasant reading experience. That isn’t intended in an entirely pejorative sense, since Karen Jennings is certainly aiming — with some elements of An Island — to make the reader uncomfortable.

The narrative moves back and forth between an undated present and past in the life of its protagonist: Samuel. In doing so, the novel gives a wider picture of the misery and loss he has endured before ending up alone on a desolate island where he serves as lighthouse keeper. When the introduction of an unnamed man breaks decades of Samuel’s solitude, the reader comes to realise that his presence represents not just a dramatic change in Samuel’s life, but an opportunity to atone for some mistakes of his past.

John Donne’s ‘Meditation XVII’, to which the title of Karen Jennings’s novel can’t help but allude, is an expression of common humanity, in which Donne expresses the human condition in terms of shared suffering:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

It is certainly open to the charge of being morbid, but it is ultimately a hopeful work that revels in the universality of the human experience, including that of mortal death:

all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language

By contrast, I found An Island to be an unrelentingly pessimistic work, such that it leaves the reader feeling that it has nothing much to say. The most significant difference, I found, was a complete absence of faith in Jennings’s novel.

The locus of faith in Donne’s work is in the Christian God — Donne was, after all, an Anglican priest at the time of composing Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623) — but An Island also calls to mind the works of staunch atheist Samuel Beckett. In plays such as Waiting for Godot (1952) and Endgame (1957), Beckett has pairs of characters marooned in unforgiving environs, with little hope for the future. In these works — though the characters may be loathe to admit it — faith is found in the human spirit’s endurance, and the stubborn will to survive. Despite stark settings and pitch dark subjects, these are plays of humour that find warmth in the natures of their characters, and in their interactions. An Island, by contrast, seemed to me entirely cynical. It lacks any sense whatsoever of a universal order, but it also refuses to replace it with any sense of faith in its characters’ humanity, or in humanity generally.

The scope of the narrative, for instance, encompasses several eras of governance for its unnamed country. A revolution for independence replaces a colonial power with a President; the President is later overthrown in favour of a Dictator, and so on. Throughout, there are physical changes to some parts of the unnamed city, but the lives of the people barely change, and the slums do not improve, they only grow in size. Likewise, the novel has no faith in the power of people, or political activism, to engender meaningful change. Any sense of hope that a character experiences is quickly undercut by another, promising that it is futile:

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.” (p74)

And, when Samuel is moved to directly participate in frustrating for change, he too is quickly disillusioned:

The march could not be stopped. Not this tide of men and women who would no longer be told how to live. They had given up fear. They knew only strength.
Only afterwards, in the first interrogation room, did he learn that the march had been poorly attended, with little more than two thousand people participating. The event had barely disrupted the peace, and though hundreds had died and many more were arrested, it had made no impact at all. (p94)

Just as the works of groups are depicted as ineffectual, so the novel also has no faith in the ability of individuals to meaningfully change. Towards the end of the book, Jennings has reduced her elderly protagonist to little more than paranoia and base impulse:

He thought only of that word he had spoken down in the stone hut: violence — though now he uttered another world altogether, “Mine.” He stood up from where he had been kneeling. And again, “Mine” as he grabbed the knife out of the man’s hand. “Mine, mine, mine!” (p98)

The act of violence on which the novel ends is but the latest in a depressing, predictable sequence. It serves as but one more example in the novel of violence rendered in response to violence, and accomplishing nothing.

One might expect that in a novel so pessimistic about humanity, notes of optimism might be found in the depiction of nature. Instead, the natural world is often shown in An Island not as a force for rejuvenation, but as an adversary to be guarded against. Often, unsurprisingly in the world of the novel, this requires some form of violence:

he manipulated the weed with lit matches, watching it twist and shrivel, not stopping until he was certain enough damage had been done that it would never grow again. (p15)

At best, nature is sometimes shown to hold the power of erasure; for the most part, like the man-made change of the novel, much of what the natural world offers is bad and getting worse. A late scene depicts what at first seems to be a miraculous natural event: the annual arrival of giant crabs to the island. Quickly, however, the beauty of the event is undermined. The crabs (just like the island’s hens) attack one another, before the humans also attack the crabs. Next the reader is told of how precipitously the crab populations have declined, and how the small crabs that remain taste comparatively awful. If the sequence fails to depress, it is only because by this point in the novel the reader has likely been numbed into expecting nothing else.

Much of the above may have been more palatable to me, had I felt that the novel had something to say about a specific time, place, or culture. Instead, I felt that Jennings’s choice to make her novel purely an allegory robbed it of any chance of making meaningful political statements. Take, for example, this exchange, which is typical of the book’s political discourse:

“But you don’t agree with the idea of fighting against tyranny? You support the Dictator?” asked Big Ro.
“No, I’m not saying that. I know about opposing power. My father was amongst those who fought for independence.” (pp78-79)

Whom among us would support ‘the Dictator’? What does it mean to ‘oppose power’, or ‘fight for independence’? The novel is so determined to remain entirely allegorical that it absolutely refuses to be specific about any of these matters. Samuel’s political awakening is also rendered in similarly cursory terms:

They went to regular meetings, passed worn paperbacks between them in which they read theories of how to create a better world and life. They recited quotes from the texts, argued over words and phrases. At the meetings they rose, made speeches. (p91)

In an interview for LitNet, Jennings explicitly frames her responsibility as a novelist so as to exclude the need to answer any of the questions she poses:

My job as a writer is to hold a mirror up to these realities, but it is not within my abilities to suggest solutions.

The problem is that, so foggy and blurred is the mirror, that nothing can be seen of the ‘realities’ but the vaguest of outlines. Does the reader agree, in principle, that it is right to ‘oppose tyranny’? Regardless of the answer, the novel suggests, nothing will really change.

In another interview, this one with the Johannesburg Review of Books, Jennings discusses the difficulties she faced in writing An Island:

There was so much that was difficult about it. Firstly, trying to write a sensitive and nuanced book about a very complex set of topics—to do it without being heavy handed or reductive. Secondly, to write a readable, compelling story in which basically nothing happens!

To the first point, I found An Island to be too steeped in the vagaries of allegory to have anything insightful to say about either the political realities of post-colonialism, or the manner in which living in such circumstances might shape a person. And, as to the second point, I’m not convinced Jennings has succeeded there either. Paragraph-to-paragraph I enjoyed her writing well enough, but the relative slightness of the story, paired with its unrelenting cynicism, made the book feel increasingly like a chore as it progressed.

Unfortunately, the context in which I read An Island — as part of a Booker Prize longlist marathon — also makes for comparisons from which it does not profit. There is Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, which is more thoughtful and more grounded in its depiction of a country shaped by a history of conflict. And there is even a short section of Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle that takes place on a secluded island, and which contains more deft character work than the entirety of Jennings’s novel.