Introducing the mayor
Sample PassageOutside it was dim, the sky lightening at the horizon and broadening over the waves. Already gulls were flying low, calling. The mayor rolled over in bed and pushed his face into the pillow, his knees brushing against those of his wife. He felt her body stiffen as he moved towards her and then the shifting of the bed as she turned from him, rising quietly, leaving the room. He did not lift his face from the pillow. He felt the warmth of his own breath on his nose and lips and went back to sleep.
When he woke again the day was light through the curtains. He stood slowly, placing each foot carefully on the ground. In the bathroom she had left the window open and the room was cool, his bare feet cold on the tiled floor. He went to the basin and ran the water until it was warm, washing his face and lathering it with shaving cream. Then he picked up his razor and slid it along his cheek, down to his jawline and below. There was no other noise in the house but for the razor on his face. He began again, further along his cheek, following a steady line. In the front room the phone began to ring. He stopped for a moment and listened, then putting down the razor, placed a hand on either side of the basin. He leaned heavily and sighed. Through the window came the smell of salt, of shrubs, and underneath, the thick smell of human filth. He cleared his throat, staring down into the white of the basin, his hands gripping its sides. When he looked up again he saw his face, grave in the mirror. To the left was the reflection of the open window, framing a small section of sea and sky. He looked at grey clouds, a grey sky. It was as though the world existed in that square alone. As though there were nothing else beyond the grey.
The houses of the lower town had been built on a steep sea-facing incline. Many were the holiday homes of farming or city families, but mostly the hill was dominated by retired couples come to live out their days with a sea view. Beyond, the hill flattened into shrublands, spreading out in long plains that touched mountains at the horizon. To the east, the lower town was flanked by a channel, dry since the 1920s when the river had chosen a different route to the sea. In the past elephants had lived there, rubbing smooth the rocks as they waded. Now the riverbed separated the lower from the upper town. Ending at high cliffs that overlooked the sea, the upper town had grown on flat land before sloping into a small bay where fishing boats mouldered on the shore. On the far edge of the bay stood the old fish factory, closed five years previously. Its long cement jetty, which had stretched out into the sea, now lay ruined; the uprights fallen into the waves below. The furthest section was still standing, and on it remained the height of a crane, its hook hanging like a gibbet.
Despite a week having passed since the fire, people were still living on the beach of the small bay, sleeping on newspapers and plastic bags. Cement-brick houses, built more than a decade before as part of a government scheme for reconstruction, now lay black and broken on the rise. For the rest, shacks were piles of burnt plastic and ash, indistinguishable from one another. Some inhabitants had returned, salvaging what they could from the rubble, moving into the deserted homes of others. They made roofs out of scorched zinc sheets, assembling their new homes amongst the piles of the old, using what remained. Many had taken what they could to the edges of the town, their homes spreading out onto the cliffs, held together by nothing. Parts of the upper town now lay uninhabited, left to the rummagings of dogs and rats. In the scattered landscape these heaps took on a sense of permanence.
Already complaints were coming to the mayor from the lower town: washing stolen from lines, tools and materials disappearing from garages, and worst of all, the smell of human faeces that made its way down with the breeze.
‘Civilised people,’ the mayor thought, ‘would have some pride. Civilised people wouldn’t live like that.’
Remaining before the mirror, he listened to the murmurs as the ringing phone was answered. Soon footsteps approached. He shifted so that he could see her in the mirror; part of her face, her shoulder.
‘It was Hannes Fouché from Doorn farm. He’s found a girl. He wants to know if you’ll come fetch her.’
He wiped his face, nodded. Then, abruptly, turning from the basin, he reached out to the window, pulling it closed.
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Number of pages: 173
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What was said about Finding Soutbek
‘Jennings’s unique achievement in her novel is the manner she is able to create the poetic and allegorical in her spare, understated prose descriptions of character and place, making us believe she is writing about a very particular and real place but which is at the same time metonymic of all South African space.’ - Shaun Viljoen University of Stellenbosch
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
‘Far from that, it is well-written, the blending of the historical narratives with contemporary Soutbek was done brilliantly and Karen Jennings definitely captured the moroseness of the town, the sadness of Anna and the stress of being a Mayor in what seemed like an ill-forsaken town.’ - Bookshy blog
‘Finding Soutbek’s shadow remains long after the book has been shut.’ Art Much? The UJ Arts & Culture Magazine
‘Both the contemporary and the historical strands of this novel are well-written, intriguing, and make for a good page-turner.’ & ‘I strongly recommend this unusual but tragic novel to everyone.’- Adam Yamey on goodreads
‘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
‘I recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about people and character, and anyone interested in South Africa.’ - Lilolia