Karen Jennings, Finding Soutbek (Review)
I don’t, as a rule, accept review copies of books by non-Australian authors, but when New Holland Press offered me Finding Soutbek by South African writer, Karen Jennings, I was intrigued. Intrigued because of connections in our countries’ respective histories, and because I’ve read several books set in South Africa (by, for example, JM Coetzee, Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer). This is Jennings’ first novel, but she has written and published poetry and short stories, winning both the Maskew Miller Longman Award in 2009 and the Commonwealth Short Story Competition‘s Africa Region prize in 2010.
I enjoyed Finding Soutbek. It’s an ambitious, layered novel that switches between the 17th century and the present in a small, remote community in South Africa, the fictitious Soutbek in an area called Namaqualand. The town comprises two groups of people, the upper-towners and the lower-towners. In a neat reversal of expectations, the upper-towners are the poor, the under-class, who at the novel’s opening, have just been hit by a fire for the second time in a reasonably short period. The novel tells the story of what happens in the town after this fire, interspersed with chapters from The History of Soutbek, written by the Mayor and a local Professor, about the community’s founding in the 17th century. This history presents the town as having utopian origins, based on “communal living, sharing and acceptance”.
The novel’s main characters are this Mayor and his wife Anna, the destitute teenage girl Sara who appears in the town at the beginning of the novel and is reluctantly taken in by the Mayor, and Willem who lives in the upper town but who also happens to be the Mayor’s nephew. Jennings explores the relationships between these (and other) characters as the Mayor, the town’s first coloured mayor in fact, struggles to achieve his personal goals in a climate that seems to stall him at every step. The potential benefits of The History are undermined by the post-fire chaos in the upper town. There is a dark side to this mayor, to the way he treats others in his quest for personal wealth and power. Anna sees this and recoils from it, and finds herself increasingly isolated until Sara’s arrival. Willem, attracted to Sara, joins these two in a companionship that sees them jointly reading The History.
The themes are pretty universal – power and oppression, the rich controlling the poor, social inequality – but there is also something that seems particularly South African. That is, the book reminded me of works I’ve read by Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing. I’m thinking particularly of Gordimer’s short story Six feet of the country and Lessing’s novella The grass is singing, which, like Finding Soutbek, describe marital tensions deriving from a life characterised by the exercise of power by one group over another. This sort of conflict is evident too in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, though his occurs between father and daughter, rather than husband and wife. These works are more complex and hard-hitting than Jennings’ novel, but they all seem to reflect a pre- and post-Apartheid South African literary aesthetic.
What interested me most about the book though was The History which purports to be based on the previously unknown journals written by the leader of a previously unknown unofficial expedition in 1662. A few chapters into the history, we learn a little more of the Mayor’s co-author, the Professor. We learn he has fallen into disrepute because his previous histories had been pro-Apartheid, had in fact argued that Apartheid should have been “carried further”. Moreover, we are told,
he felt no remorse for his actions. He believed that what he had done was fair and just … He had moulded the past into a suitable present, giving people historical proof of what they already believed.
So, a little way into The History we readers are forewarned. It may not do to be taken in. Willem is intrigued, “attracted by the utopia it described … [and] … its answers for a better life”. But, the oldest man in the village makes him wonder and so he starts to read other histories. Late in the novel he says
History says that for centuries humans have been trying to rule other humans, taking the land and everything else for themselves. That’s all the history you need to know. There’s nothing else.
You might guess from this that the utopian vision presented in The History may not be quite as it looks – and you’d be right but I won’t give too much away of how it all plays out. I’ll simply say that I like the fact that Jennings has tackled the writing of history, and how easily it can be made to serve a purpose. As we in Australia know, “history”, whether knowingly fabricated or not, can completely miss the point. And this can have devastating consequences.
While I enjoyed the book, I had some reservations. The History chapters are longer than they need be for the point they are making and this slows the book down somewhat. And the characters are kept a little at a distance. This is partly due to the almost mythic tone and partly to the shifting point of view. It’s the sort of tone I like, but it fights a little here with the very real story going on, and the shifting point of view makes it hard for us to fully engage with the characters. We don’t get to know them quite well enough to fully empathise with them, and this lessens somewhat the book’s emotional impact.
Finding Soutbek is, nonetheless, a good read. The plot is logically developed, the writing is good and the subject matter is relevant. Jennings writes in her Acknowledgements:
At all times I have been careful to remember that though this is a piece of fiction, it is a tale nonetheless which represents a sore reality, and I have tried my utmost to relate it in a sympathetic and sensitive manner.
She has done exactly that and, despite my reservations, I’m glad I read it.
London: Holland Park Press, 2009
(Review copy supplied by Holland Park Press)