Review: Karen Watkins
It’s no wonder this small book was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021 – from the first page to the last my attention never wavered.
The setting is a small, indeterminate island off the coast of a former colonised country that went through independence, rebellion and civil war.
Samuel is the only person living on the island where he has been the lighthouse keeper for over two decades.
The only people he sees are two men who bring him provisions every two weeks. He lives a simple life, tending his chickens, growing veggies and occasionally doing maintenance on the lighthouse.
The story takes place over four days, beginning with the day that the body of a refugee washes ashore.
This is not unusual; about 32 bodies have washed ashore which Samuel has buried beneath stone cairns – there isn’t much soil on the island.
The difference with this body is that the man is alive. He does not look like Samuel and speaks a different language.
As the story rhythmically unfolds and intensifies, Samuel’s traumatic memories of his former life on the mainland resurface as we learn about his past and the reasons for his solitude.
For me some of these flashbacks were almost sci-fi, from a dystopian, unreal world. Maybe that was just my take on that country’s fight for independence from colonialism to a corrupt president and then a dictator.
The thread running throughout is one of isolation. The book cover has a chicken. Samuel keeps chickens. One of these is being isolated and occasionally attacked by the others.
Karen Jennings vividly illustrates a well-constructed story with depth of characters carrying me along, building suspense and tension, with no wasted words.
Some authors come out with thick books but Jennings tells the story in only 165 pages. The plot is fast-paced and has elements of a thriller and a sense that things could spiral out of control. I did not want the story to end and thoroughly recommend it.