‘It took the Booker to introduce South Africans to their own Karen Jennings’, writes Jean Meiring

This year’s discovery, though, is Jennings (born 1982), who, in spite of having produced several excellent earlier books, has not been afforded the acclaim in South Africa that she deserves. The truth of the hoary adage that a prophet is rarely hallowed in her own land rings especially true, it would seem, of South Africans who write literary fiction in English.

[…]

Whether Jennings’ name appears on the shortlist that will be announced in London tomorrow afternoon or not, one can only hope that her longlisting will have changed the trajectory of her career: that she will never again have to make out a case to be published. And never again be published in print runs of only 500.

LitNet

Jennifer Malec interviews Karen Jennings for the JRB

“I do like Samuel, because he is incredibly human. He is an ordinary man. He has made mistakes; terrible ones. But he is a man trying to find a place for himself in the world, just as we all are. No one is all good or all bad. We are all only trying as best we can to make a home for ourselves in which we feel safe and where we feel we belong. But, of course, this is not determined by ourselves alone. The past plays a role in our identity, as do our economic, social, cultural, political circumstances. All of these things have an influence on us, whether we like to admit it or not.”

JRB

John Self reviews An Island by Karen Jennings

This is a book that gives us faith that the Booker prize judges are doing their job, for two reasons. The first is that this is the dark horse of the longlist, released quietly by a micro-publisher, unreviewed in the press until now, so it shows the judges aren’t just guided by big names.

An Island is the third novel by Karen Jennings, a South African novelist living in Brazil. It throws us into the world of Samuel, a lighthouse keeper who has withdrawn from the world and whose main concerns are looking after his chickens and maintaining his toenails. Oh, and occasionally he harvests corpses — refugees, others — who wash up on his shores. Unfortunately for Samuel, the 33rd dead body to arrive in his 23 years on the island turns out, despite his hopes, not to be dead after all.

The Times

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett interviewed Karen Jennings for the Guardian

The South African author struggled to find a publisher for her Booker-nominated novel An Island, which only had a print-run of 500 copies. She talks about rejection, her country and believing in herself

Karen Jennings is still in shock. It has been a few days since the announcement that her novel, An Island, has been longlisted for the Booker prize, and the 38-year-old South African author looks as though she’s reeling. Considering the novel’s difficult route to publication, you can understand why. She doesn’t even have an agent.

“It was incredibly difficult to find a publisher,” she says, via video chat from Brazil, where she has spent the pandemic alongside her Brazilian husband, a scientist. Due to being essentially stranded there, she has yet to hold an actual physical copy of the book in her hands. “I finished the novel in 2017. And no one was interested. When I did finally get a small publisher in the UK and a small publisher in South Africa to co-publish, they couldn’t get anyone to review the book. We couldn’t get people to write endorsement quotes, or blurbs.”

Guardian

AN ISLAND by KAREN JENNINGS longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize!

Karavan Press is thrilled and deeply honoured to announce that An Island by Karen Jennings has been longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. Co-published with UK publisher, Holland House Books, An Island tells the story of Samuel, a lighthouse keeper.

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.

“The far southern extremities of our planet produce remarkable, distilled, and ravaged tales. An Island has to be counted as among the most remarkable of these. Karen Jennings offers a chilling, immersive portrait of Samuel, a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the African continent. He is a man at the edge of history, until the arrival of a refugee stranger returns him to everything he most needs to forget. A gripping, terrifying and unforgettable story.”  — Elleke Boehmer

THE 2021 BOOKER PRIZE LONGLIST ANNOUNCEMENT

Blog Tour: AN ISLAND by Karen Jennings

Karavan Press co-published An Island by Karen Jennings with the UK publisher, Holland House Books.

When the UK edition of An Island appeared last year in November, this stunning novel and its author went on a blog tour, organised by Emma Welton of Damppebbles Blog Tours. Here are some highlights:

In my novel, An Island, I have attempted to engage with the dark history that many African nations share, the ramifications of which are felt to this day. Because of the complexity of the historical influences, I chose to tell the story in as simple a way as possible, using as location a small fictional island off the coast of Africa, never revealing to which country that island belongs. I dislike the pervasive western notion that Africa is a single country, an idea that reduces the vibrant cultures, societies, languages and traditions to all being one and the same. The intent behind An Island was never to take part in that reductionism. Rather, I hoped that through focusing the action of the novel on two key characters and their interactions within the confines of this small space that it would allow significant relevant historical influences to be seen as irrevocable and undeniable aspects in the life of the protagonist, but without the risk of specific events, historical figures and political policies overshadowing his thoughts, emotions and behaviour. By those means I wished to examine what the influence of such a history might be on an individual – most specifically, what might drive a seemingly ordinary person to violence?

KAREN JENNINGS – DAMPPEBBLES BLOG TOURS

Karen has created an atmospheric tale, one that has humanity sewn through its core. The setting of an island backdrop breathes the chill of loneliness through the chapters and the way it feels personal and raw will have the reader understanding, possibly connecting with Samuel on levels we weren’t sure we would. An Island is a truly special read, that you’ll find creeps up on you chapter by chapter. You’ll get lost in the wave of Karen’s words, in Samuel’s loss, life and grief entranced by the violence our protagonist has experienced, as well as the emotional knitting that holds the novel’s core together.

THE READING CLOSET

… a well developed story, great setting and a fantastic main character.

DONNA’S BOOK BLOG

An important and astoundingly good novel … 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.

MY BOOKISH BLOGSPOT

STEFANIE: Is there a writer whose brain you would love to pick for advice? Who would that be and why?
KAREN: Last year I read the autobiography of Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth century writer. I found him fascinating because of his work ethic. He had very strict rules for himself, such as getting up early every morning and writing something like 2000 words before going about his day. He would write 250 words per 15 minutes and made sure to keep a strict log of his progress. Travelling was no excuse for idleness – no matter where he was in the world, he would write, whether it was on a boat or a train, in a carriage, in the jungle, in the desert. He was “merciless”, that’s how he described his attitude to writing. If, for example, he finished writing a book, but he still had ten minutes of allocated writing time or he hadn’t fulfilled his wordcount, he would just pick up a fresh page and start a new book. Parts of this sound so mad to me, while other parts of it make sense, to a certain extent.
Steinbeck, on the other hand, seems to have been quite the opposite. In his diaries that he kept while writing Grapes of Wrath, he records often taking days off to hang out with friends or to enjoy the nice weather. Then he’d frenziedly work to the point of exhaustion for a few days before lounging around again.
I would like to be able to sit with the two of them and have a conversation about writing practice. I imagine it would be quite fascinating, but likely a disaster. I don’t see the two of them getting on very well!

THE MAGIC OF WOR(L)DS

ELS: 1. Which character would you like to be in this book?

KAREN: I wouldn’t like to be any of them! They are all in desperate situations or live very bleak existences. I can’t say that I envy any of them.

B FOR BOOKREVIEW

The themes of this book are serious but covered sensitively. I have really enjoyed reading this one.

I have loved Sam as a main character, he is unique …

LITTLE MISS BOOK LOVER 87

The vivid descriptions of life on the island capture the rhythm of Samuel’s days; he tends his vegetable patch, feeds the chickens and prepares his stew and while there is comforting familiarity to his life, there is also an underlying loneliness which perhaps explains why he shelters a man he knows nothing about. His resentment and fear of the outsider is entirely understandable yet also devastatingly poignant. These are two men who don’t understand each other but both are outsiders, shaped then shunned by much of a violent society because of who they are or where they come from. An Island is a powerful exploration of humanity’s complex relationship with each other, meaning the universal need to connect with others is constantly threatened by suspicion and frequently misplaced anger. Karen Jennings’ book is an affecting read – this empathetic, evocative novel is a thought-provoking look at themes which affect us all, regardless of where we come from. 

HAIR PAST A FRECKLE

The SA edition of An Island is published by Karavan Press: An Island by Karen Jennings.

Karavan Press title: An Island by Karen Jennings

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.

“The far southern extremities of our planet produce remarkable, distilled, and ravaged tales. An Island has to be counted as among the most remarkable of these. Karen Jennings offers a chilling, immersive portrait of Samuel, a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the African continent. He is a man at the edge of history, until the arrival of a refugee stranger returns him to everything he most needs to forget. A gripping, terrifying and unforgettable story.”  — Elleke Boehmer

ISBN: 978-0-6399942-5-3

Publication date: December 2020

Cover artworks by Deborah Minné

About the author:

KAREN JENNINGS was born in Cape Town in 1982. She is the author of three novels, Finding Soutbek, Travels with My Father and Upturned Earth; a short story collection, Away from the Dead; and a poetry volume, Space Inhabited by Echoes.

Her stories have been recognised with the Africa Region prize in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and the English section of the Maskew Miller Longman short story competition.

She holds Master’s degrees in both English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Currently living in Brazil, 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, particularly the quiet lives of everyday people.

Karavan Press is co-publishing An Island with UK publisher, Holland House Books.

Author photograph by Carol Coelho.

UK publisher Holland House Books and Karavan Press to co-publish AN ISLAND by Karen Jennings

We are delighted to announce that Karen Jennings and her UK publisher, Holland House Books, have approached Karavan Press for the co-publication of Karen’s latest novel, An Island. We have been in discussion since Karen’s last visit in Cape Town and have now signed a publishing agreement. Karavan Press will publish the local edition of this exquisite novel.

An Island by Karen Jennings

Description

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 with Karina M. Szczurek

Karen Jennings was born in Cape Town in 1982. She holds Master’s degrees in both English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Karen’s stories and poetry have been published in journals across the globe. In 2010, her short story From Dark won the Africa Region prize in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Mia and the Shark won the English section of the Maskew Miller Longman short story competition in 2009 and is now studied in schools. Finding Soutbek was her first novel. Her short story collection Away from the Dead was published in 2014, and her Travels with My Father – An Autobiographical Novel was published in 2016. Karen’s first full poetry collection Space Inhabited by Echoes was published to great acclaim in 2018. Last year, she published Upturned Earth, a novel set in the copper mining district Namaqualand, Cape Colony, during the 1880s.

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. 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.