Samuel is the lighthouse keeper on an island that is part of an unnamed African country. He has taken this desolate, hostile to human life place and created a home, where the invasive weeds are kept down, one cracked plate is enough, the red chicken requires protection from all the bully chickens anAnd a supply boat comes every two weeks. His father lost his legs during the fight to overthrow a corrupt and repressive government and the President who stepped in as the savior is no better. A coup d’etat took care of him. We know early on that Samuel spent over 23 years in jail for a political crime, crossing the dictator who followed the President. We know that everything that happens on his island reflects a standard of living and rules and ways of being that he has developed over his twenty or more years there. He is old and achy and his wheelbarrow is falling apart and now, another body is down by the water and will have to be buried in the vegetable garden wall.
Except this one is a man who survived when the refugee boat went under. They don’t speak the same language and Samuel’s mind spins wildly, resentfully, at times with compassion, then angry/almost murderous, but there- for a moment with friendship- all the while shifting his perceptions about the man, his intentions, his needs. What we learn from An Island is that the popular trope that “no man is an island” is untrue. Samuel is an island. With his own idiosyncrasies and sensibilities about what is important and what is right and what is wrong. With his desolate, hostile to human life brain. This beautifully told tale makes us understand this man, forged from poverty, from the influences of amoral, ultimately dangerous friends and later from the influences of still more dangerous friends who seek political change, Then on to brutal prison conditions, betrayal, loss of family ties and of any ties at all: Trauma wrapped up in a bow: That is Samuel.
We care about Samuel and how he has made a life for himself that satisfies him and meets his needs. We care that he’s scared of dying. We care that he is proud to have created a recipe for bread that is just right and that he tries hard to protect the red hen. We worry with him about the man who has floated into his life, moved into his cottage and is a bit too free with Samuel’s stuff. This story of a few days takes us through a hardscrabble lifetime and makes us understand this damaged man. And ultimately, he figures out what to do to make his life work and it is inherently what we would expect– and we understand. And we care about him still.