Karen Jennings, Upturned earth (#BookReview)

Book coverIntroducing 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.

Why?

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.

Karen Jennings
Upturned earth
London: Holland Park Press, 2019
202pp.
ISBN: 9781907320910

(Review copy courtesy Holland Park Press)

Karen Jennings, Finding Soutbek (Review)

Jennings Finding Soutbek

Finding Soutbek (Courtesy: Holland Park Press)

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.

Karen Jennings
Finding Soutbek
London: Holland Park Press, 2009
273pp.
ISBN: 9781907320200

(Review copy supplied by Holland Park Press)