Finding Soutbek

Karen Jennings

A thought-provoking tale of modern South Africa

Sample Passages

  • Introducing the mayor

    Outside 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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  • Life among the Namaqua

    In the days that followed, the explorers began to feel stronger and well fed. As guests to the kraal, they did no work, and so they spent their days sitting in the sun outside their huts, watching the activity going on around them. They slept much of the time, for they were still tired from their journey, and the luxury of having nothing to do soon encouraged laziness. It became common practice that some of the senior men of the tribe would come and join the men outside their huts to partake in tobacco and brandy. The explorers had not forgotten their search for the wealthy Monomotapa, and so they continuously asked the Namaqua elders the origin of their ‘‡ei’ (copper) and ‘/urib’ (iron). These questions the Namaqua pretended not to understand, or answered evasively. Van Meerman and his men determined that it would take some time to win the tribe’s complete trust.
    A week after their arrival at the kraal, van Meerman caught a Namaqua man in his hut, trying to steal the last of their Spanish wine. Furious, he took the man to the chief, who reprimanded the man soundly and told van Meerman, ‘Khoikhoi tamab, Sab ke’ (He is no Khoikhoi, he is Sa). This is as much as saying, ‘He is no gentleman [Khoikhoi meaning men of men], he is of low extraction or a rascal.’  Akembie said that he had had much trouble with this man, named !Guŋbee, for he did not wish to do any work and was insubordinate. However, not wanting to cause trouble, van Meerman requested that the man go unpunished, and that he be given another chance. Akembie agreed to this, saying that van Meerman had the makings of a great chief, for the worst thing a chief could  be was ‘gei-//are’ (greatly left-handed or stingy).
    After this, !Guŋbee became devoted to van Meerman. He followed the Dutch man wherever he went, and began sitting at the edge of the circle of elders which formed around van Meerman each day. With time it appears that the two men became friends, and van Meerman found !Guŋbee to be a bright and entertaining man. !Guŋbee was soon able to converse in broken Dutch, and explained to van Meerman that he was looked down upon by his fellow tribesmen because he had no cattle. The Dutchman replied that he understood well what !Guŋbee’s situation was, for he himself had come from a place where he was looked down upon for having little.
    The two men sat together most days, talking and waiting for the women to bring them food. Mostly the women brought ‘χurina’ which is the collective word for roots, berries, honey and bulbs gathered in the veld. Van Meerman developed a taste for the ‘!naras’ fruit, a type of melon the size of a newborn baby’s head. The custom was to eat the flesh raw and then keep the seeds to be eaten in the dry season. He ate these seeds by the handful, claiming that they tasted much like almonds. Steadily, van Meerman and his men could feel their stomachs expanding and their bodies filling out.
    Among the women who brought the travellers food every day was a girl named !Urisis. Van Meerman was utterly spellbound by this girl with her nut-brown skin, round breasts and dark eyes which she lowered every time she came before him. He began concocting errands she could run for him, merely to spend some time in the happy anticipation of her company. He would ask her to take gifts of tobacco and beads to the chief and she would always reply, ‘Goreb !na ta ni tani’ (I will carry it in the palm of my hand). His agitation whenever !Urisis came to his hut was evident, and the old Namaqua men would laugh at him, for they knew the signs of love, which were the same in all men no matter what their colour. Van Meerman asked !Guŋbee about the girl and was told that she was the daughter of Akembie’s son, !Urisib, who had died in a battle with the Numaqua a number of years before. The old men, sitting nearby, teased van Meerman and asked him why he was so curious about this girl, and he replied that there was no reason. ‘Heitse!’ they warned him. ‘She may have a body like a cow’s body now [that is, a beautiful, fine, fat body], but look out because a woman cannot be quiet for as long as it takes sweet milk to turn sour! And once you’re married, Heitse!, you get scolded all day long. You can’t even put your hand in the food pot without getting shouted at!’
    It seems that after some time, at van Meerman’s request, !Guŋbee approached Akembie and asked what van Meerman should do in order to be granted !Urisis’s hand in marriage. Akembie’s reply was that she was ‘Gei khoits õase’ (a great man’s daughter) and therefore she could not be married to a man who owned no cattle other than a single pack ox which was barely alive. No, he could not let it happen. Van Meerman was devastated by the news and began to brood.

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Sample Information


Shortlisted for the Inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature!

Read an interview with Karen about Finding Soutbek being shortlisted on Books Live.

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.

Karen talks about writing Finding Soutbek in this interview with Business Daily Africa.

The French language version of Finding Soutbek was published in January 2017. Download the PDF brochure at the top of this page for more details.

Other titles by Karen Jennings:

Travels with My Father, an autobiographical novel
Away from the Dead, a collection of short stories
Pictures of the launch

£10.99 – $19.00
You can buy Finding Soutbek now by clicking on the ‘Buy this book’ button on this page. Your card will be debited in your local currency.

If you want to order in any other way, please email the publisher.

Professional reviewers & bloggers, please email the publisher if you would like a review copy.

ISBN: 978-1-907320-20-0
Number of pages: 173
Price: £0


‘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 Orpenwho 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?bThe 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

‘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