One Island, Two Men and Lots of Big Questions

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Karen Jennings’s novel “An Island,” which was on the longlist for the Booker Prize in 2021, is set on a fictional unnamed island off the coast of Africa, where a man named Samuel has worked as a lighthouse keeper for more than 20 years. When a refugee washes up on shore one day, barely alive, Samuel navigates life around this stranger and flashes back to his own past, including his role in a political uprising and years that he spent in prison. On this week’s podcast, Jennings says that the book’s somewhat fable-like tone was very intentional.

“I knew that if I were to write about any one specific country, then I would have to make it about that country: that country’s political events, that country’s culture,” Jennings says. “My plan was to make it more universal, and attempt to understand something greater, something more complex. And the only way that I could see to do that was to do it in this very pared-down, focused way, reducing most of the action to this fictional island and then to these brief moments — I guess kind of like highlights — from Samuel’s past.”

Phil Klay, the Marine Corps veteran and acclaimed fiction writer, visits the podcast this week to talk about a new collection of his nonfiction writing, “Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War.”

“There’s a huge problem when we’re regularly sending troops to kill people and sending troops at risk and the president is not forced on a regular basis to go before Congress to explain what the mission is, how it’s in the national interest, what it’s going to cost, what we’re trying to achieve,” Klay says. “I think that war is the most morally fraught thing we can do as a nation, and it demands more democratic accountability.”

Also on this week’s episode, Dwight Garner and Alexandra Jacobs talk about books they’ve recently reviewed. John Williams is the host.

Here are the books discussed by the Times’s critics this week:

We would love to hear your thoughts about this episode, and about the Book Review’s podcast in general. You can send them to [email protected].

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