Introducing my review of South African writer Karen Jennings’ debut novel, Finding Soutbek, I noted that I don’t normally accept review copies from non-Australian publishers but that I will, very occasionally, make an exception if the writer or subject matter interests me. Upturned earth, Jenning’s fifth book, is set in a nineteenth century mining town. Given some general similarities between colonial South Africa and Australia, and my own, albeit youthful, experience of living in a mining town, I was intrigued to read it.
Upturned earth is set in 1886 in Namaqualand, the copper mining district of what was then Cape Colony. It’s an arid region crossing the South African-Nambian border, with its largest town being Springbok (Springbokfontein at the time of the novel). The novel commences with the arrival by boat from Cape Town of 28-year-old William Hull, who is due to take over as magistrate. On first appearances, Hull seems almost like an antihero:
Weak-willed, forgetful, Hull was a poor employee. He did as he was told, yet somehow was never able to fulfil the chores of the position with the same success as his colleagues did. He confused cases, misfiled documents, knocked over inkwells.
In fact, it seems that he is more interested in nature, than work. “He carried,” we’re told, “the droppings of animals folded in handkerchiefs, kept pink newborns warm in his hat”. However, on realising he had been given the job “because no other man would take it”, he resolves to “be firm. Punishments would be meted out. The law would be laid down.”
Unfortunately, life as Okiep’s Magistrate is not as he expects. Slowly, he learns that no-one in Okiep is independent, not even the Magistrate, because the town is unofficially run by the Cape Copper Mining Company. Its head is the Super, Mr Townsend, whose widowed daughter, Iris McBride, returns to Namaqualand on the same boat as Hull. Initially, despite hints to the contrary, he doesn’t realise the true situation, so settles down to a life of work and following his naturalist’s heart, which sees him going out in every spare moment to collect plant and animal specimens. He’s keen to contribute to scientific knowledge. But, the irony is that in “trying to understand the dead things around him”, he is overlooking the live ones.
The narrative is told through two parallel stories. Hull’s is one, the other is Noki’s. He’s a Xhosa mining labourer, one of many who come into Okiep to work and send money home to families in the surrounding regions. Noki, though, has an added concern. While he is away visiting family, his 17-year-old brother Anele is arrested for drunken and disruptive behaviour, and is imprisoned in the gaol attached to Hull’s Residence. This gaol is managed by gaoler-cum-Hull’s-manservant, Genricks. He dissuades Hull from inspecting the gaol. After all, he has it all in hand, and weak Hull, though making an attempt to do the right thing, lets himself be put off.
Given the novel is set in a colonial society, and one involving mines with white and indigenous workers overseen by an arrogant brutal man, you’ll have a picture of what this novel is about. Gradually, things come to a head and people’s true colours are exposed. It’s to his credit that Hull comes to his senses and finds a strength he didn’t know he had – but the calamity can’t all the righted, and the ending is an appropriate one. This is literary historical fiction, so it doesn’t all play out to form, opting for something a little more realistic. I’ll leave the plot at that.
The perfectly titled Upturned earth is Jennings’ third novel. Her writing is tight and expressive. She talks about indigenous workers being “broken down into acceptance”, and here is Hull’s perspective of the place after he suffers a disappointment:
… and he saw as though with new eyes what he had lived in and grown accustomed to these past months. The dull sky, the wearying streets and stained homes, the disgrace of the prison building.
Plain language, but it is all that’s needed.
The important question to ask about historical fiction is – why? The obvious answer is that there are many stories worth telling, stories that the majority of us have never heard, like, for example, Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay (my review) about abortionist Rebecca Sinclair who was gaoled in Long Bay in 1909, and Emma Ashmere’s The floating garden (my review) about the demolition of homes in the 1920s to make way for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Jennings explains her reason for writing this book in her Author’s Note and Acknowledgements. She was inspired John M. Smalberger’s book, Aspects of the history of copper mining in Namaqualand (1846-1931), in which she found magistrate William Charles Scully. From there she went to various other books, including Scully’s own reminiscences. This is fiction, however, so, says Jennings, her character Hull’s “weaknesses are all his own”. However, the brutality (and name) of gaoler Genricks are fact, though the events relating to him, the Super and others have been fictionalised. Then comes her main point: she sees her novel as being “a comment on the history of commercial mining in South Africa – the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present”.
The novel, then, is a plea for humanity, for kindness. Here is Hull, halfway through the novel, talking with Cornish miner Tregowning whom he has just met. Tregowning describes the mistreatment of the miners, and particularly the indigenous ones, but Hull can’t quite believe or accept what he is saying:
Tregowning turned to face the magistrate. ‘Are we not taught to vindicate the weak and fatherless, to help the afflicted and destitute, to rescue the feeble and needy? To deliver them out of the hands of the wicked?’
Hull looked around uneasily. His tongue felt thick as he spoke. ‘Some would call those revolutionary words.’
‘I thought they were biblical.’
Which way will our weak Mr Hull go is the question we confront as we read. But, the theme is clear from the start – man’s inhumanity to man (especially in these colonial environments) and what can be done about it. Pondering what has changed and what hasn’t is why we read historical fiction. I enjoyed this book.
London: Holland Park Press, 2019
(Review copy courtesy Holland Park Press)