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Booker Longlist 2021 – An Island

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Book Twelve –  Read and reviewed by BookWorm & Tracy

Synopsis from Booker Prize website: 

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.

Karen Jennings is a South African author. Her debut novel, Finding Soutbek, was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for African Fiction. Her memoir, Travels with my Father, was published in 2016, and in 2018 she released her debut poetry collection, Space Inhabited by Echoes. Currently living in Brazil, last year Karen completed post-doctoral research at the Federal University of Goiás on the historical relationship between science and literature, with a focus on eusocial insects. Karen works with the mentorship programmes run by Writivism and Short Story Day Africa, both of which promote writing in Africa. Her interests lie in colonialism, historically and in the lasting impact that it has had on the continent of Africa and beyond.

BookWorm’s Thoughts:  I really don’t know what to make of this book and I am not sure that I totally get the point it was trying to make. Colonialism was bad, freedom led to corrupt leaders, which lead to a coup leaving a dictator in charge, leading to revolution and round again. The story of multiple African nations told using an un-named island and an old man from an un-named country.

The story itself is atmospheric and creepy. A lone old man and a refugee who share no common language trapped on an island with no idea of the other person’s intentions. As the story unfolds we see the kind of person Samuel (the old man) was, what happened in his past to lead to him living alone on an island and how that past shapes his actions in the present.

A short book but with a punch.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 15/20

Tracy’s Thoughts: First off, I have to call out the author. She is a White South African woman writing a Black African man. And she named him Samuel (an African man named Sam?- reminds me of Little Black Sambo.)  I’d be lying if I said this didn’t influence my reading. 

The story of Samuel is interesting- he is a former insurrectionist, political prisoner, and currently a paranoid lighthouse keeper on an island off the coast of his country. That would be a fascinating story if it didn’t feel so generically written- I don’t know how much research the author did, but I feel like she didn’t use it like she could have. 

I know this sounds like I hated the book. But I didn’t exactly hate it. The descriptions were beautiful, and the bleakness of Samuel’s life and the island blended well. His mistrust was well placed, and well written. 

Jennings is a decent writer. I just wish she’d chosen a different story to tell. Maybe writing what you know is a good idea. 

Writing quality: 2.5/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 2/4
Enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 11.5/20

Rankings so far
Bewilderment 19.25/20
No one is Talking about This 16.83
Light Perpetual 16.25
Second Place 16
A Town Called Solace 15.83
The Fortune Men 14.83
The Sweetness of Water 14.63
The Promise 14.25
A Passage North 13.83
Klara and the Sun 13.3
An Island 13.25
China Room 13.1

What did you make of this one?

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