Finding SoutbekKaren Jennings
Sample PassagesIntroducing the mayor
Life among the Namaqua
The focal point of the novel is the small town of Soutbek. Its troubles, hardships and corruption, but also its kindness, strong community and friendships, are introduced to us in a series of stories about intriguingly interlinked relationships.
Contemporary Soutbek is still a divided town – the upper town destitute, and the lower town rich, largely ignorant – and Finding Soutbek is a novel about the real conditions that shape the lives of ordinary, marginalised people.
Karen Jennings’s focus on the quiet but necessary heroism of the poor and disadvantaged makes her work universal.
Through a series of vivid scenes, the troubled relationship between Pieter Fortuin, the town’s first coloured mayor, and his wife Anna is revealed. It straddles different worlds, just like the two parts of Soutbek.
In so many ways the past casts a long shadow over the present, and Karen handles this beautifully; for example, with this remark about the questionable historian and unlikely collaborator of Pieter Fortuin, professor Terence Pearson: ‘He had moulded the past into a suitable present, giving people historical proof of what they already believed.’ Or this one about Willem, the mayor’s nephew: ‘Through his reading Willem began to see the past as a machine. It ate people as it went, ingesting the land, leaving nothing for the weak, the poor.’
The past is introduced through scenes from the unreliable diaries of Pieter Meerman, promoted by Fortuin and Professor Pearson. They give us a unique insight into the lives of the seventeenth-century Dutch explorers associated with the VOC (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, United East India Company) and hint at a utopian society, suggesting that Soutbek is the birthplace of assimilation and integration – a popular story.
However, Oom Bekkie, the town’s oldest man, doesn’t agree and quite simply states: ‘I come from the sea.’ Whereas the foundling Sara, who teases Anna out of her shell, knows that red heat on dust is all she has by which to identify the place she is from.
The blossoming friendship between Anna, Sara and Willem is unsettled by David, Anna’s and Pieter’s son. His father has bought him a bright future, but when he comes back from boarding school David appears alienated from his father and from his old friend, the former gardener Charles Geduld, just as Anna starts to accept him as her son.
Is there hope, or are we left with Willem’s conclusion that ‘he would spend the rest of his life working off the debt of his family’s poverty’?
A wonderful, moving story that keeps you spellbound, yet also paints a thought-provoking picture of life in contemporary South Africa.
Finding Soutbek is featured at the African Book Festival 2012, held on 26 & 27 October in the Free Word Centre, london.
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Number of pages: 173
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What was said about Finding Soutbek
Rustum Kozain at the launch of Finding Soutbek on 13 June 2012 in Cape Town:
‘This is a most remarkable novel, a debut of a writer to be watched.’
‘Most noteworthy for me is the understated quality of the writing.’
‘The characters are lifelike, remarkable, familiar yet unrecognisable, surprise the reader, and hum with the writer’s imagination.’
Read also a report of the launch on the Books Live blog and one by Pat Orpen who taught Karen Jennings at Wynberg High School.
‘What sets this book apart is the expert characterisation.’ & ‘Jennings is an exciting newcomer to South African literary fiction - definitely one to watch.’ - Cape Times
‘It is slowly mesmerising and enchanting in its progression of events. & For the reader who enjoys understated narrative of many layers and revelations.’ - Inkling Book Reviews
‘Finding Soutbek is a delicate and intricate novel... This narrative heavy text is enriched with subtle ironies and vivid metaphors.
Jennings's sensitive and thought-provoking writing is exquisitely painful; with quiet authority, she reflects the reality of present day South Africa.’ - Judy Croome on Goodreads
‘A powerful book that does make you dwell on the idea of your own response and obligation to others. It also underlines the truth that money does not equal happiness.’ - Simon Quicke on Inside Books
‘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.’
‘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.’ - Whispering Gums Blog
‘Karen Jennings writes with compassion and humanity, but shows that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. She doesn’t preach but tells a story, which, like a parable, is left for the reader to interpret.’ - Emma Lee on her blog
‘Jennings draws out the inequalities and injustices subtly, with quiet power and deep humanity through an assured control of the narrative.’ - Jeanette Currie on Fiction Uncovered
‘The unreliability of each character’s account is what keeps the novel interesting ... and leaves something to the imagination.
Finding Soutbek may be set in South Africa, but it has something to say about inequalities everywhere.’ - Watching The Coast blog
‘Finding Soutbek is a beautifully written, complex novel that sensitively explores how the past can influence the future, and the destructive power of self-deception.’ - Pam McIlroy on her Pamreader blog
‘Forced removals, doctored histories – what emerges is a different truth, and a dirty one.’ Elsbeth Lindner on BookOxygen