An Island tells the story of Samuel, who is seventy years old when the tale opens. For the previous twenty-three years he has tended a lighthouse on a rocky islet, where he cultivates vegetables and keeps chickens. Requested supplies are delivered by boat each fortnight. Other than these brief visits, he lives alone.
Occasional bodies are washed up on his shores, refugees who have perished and who he buries. The authorities have no interest in those whose skin colour and facial features mark them as foreign.
The book is structured across four days that unfold in short segments with many flashbacks. On the first day Samuel finds the body of a man who turns out not to be as dead as he first appears. Although unwelcome, Samuel cannot bring himself to leave the incomer to perish. With some difficulty he moves the inert form to his cottage. When the man recovers consciousness they struggle to communicate as neither speaks the other’s language. Samuel grows paranoid about the stranger’s intentions, especially when he starts to make himself too much at home.
Samuel’s backstory is gradually revealed when incidents remind him of events from his past. As a boy he and his family were driven from their rural valley smallholding by colonisers – the end of his peaceful and happy time. Those who survived the clearance fled to the city where they joined the ranks of beggars making trinkets to sell. At best this provided a subsistence living.
The unnamed African country goes through further periods of turmoil. The colonisers are replaced by a dictator who makes promises of improvement but feathers only the nests of himself and his supporters. Any who are caught speaking out against him are punished severely.
As a young man Samuel wanted to find a tribe he could belong to, latching on to a group of petty criminals and then a gathering of rebels. Neither, however, truly welcomed him. Given his circumstances and behaviour, it was no surprise to learn he ended up in prison for a time. Samuel had aspirations but little opportunity. However much he may have longed for acclaim, to make a difference amidst the poverty and turbulence, if he was to survive he could not be a hero.
“The films showed lovers, dance clubs, drugs and traffickers, as though that was all of it, everything. As though there were no history, and all the past was something that happened elsewhere, to be remembered by others.”
The brush strokes of Samuel’s past life help explain why he sought a solitary existence and struggled with trust. After his many challenging experiences, the island became his hard won refuge. When the stranger is thrust upon him he shows a degree of mercy but cannot set aside his ingrained fears, exacerbated by how hard he has worked to create a home. As the story is told only from Samuel’s point of view, the stranger remains an enigma. This works well in making him any man from elsewhere.
The author has crafted a subtle yet piercing portrayal of the costs of human subjugation and repeated rejection. Fear of the other has been inculcated, encouraged by those wielding authority. The writing is spare and evocative, the reader trusted to understand the whys and wherefores. Samuel’s island existence is rendered skillfully, his fears understood however abject.
Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement with which engagement is effortless. A thoughtful and lingering story that deserves its Booker Prize longlisting.