Upturned Earth

Karen Jennings

Sample Passages

  • William Hull arrives in Port Nolloth

    There was no one to assist Hull at the hotel’s reception. Only a dim and small lobby in which two faded armchairs and a table bearing a vase of browning paper flowers gathered dust. A tortoiseshell cat was asleep on one of the chairs, but opened an eye to watch as Hull seated himself on the other. His head ached and the nausea of the past days remained heavy in his stomach and throat. Beneath him the land still appeared to be moving, and he felt at all times about to be upended. He sat with a sigh and allowed his feet to slide forward on the sand-laden carpet. In this posture, crotch thrust upwards, torso shrunk into the seat, he rested with eyes shut.

    ‘Would that be you, Mr Hull?’

    He shuffled hastily into a sitting position and looked up at a man in his shirtsleeves. He wore his thinning grey hair scraped back and had a white bush of beard that yellowed around his mouth. His spectacles were so marked with water spots that Hull wondered how he could see through them.

    ‘Ah yes,’ Hull answered. ‘My luggage is still at the pier. There is a porter, I assume.’

    ‘Indeed, there is,’ replied the man as he leaned over the cat and ruffled its fur. ‘You won’t find him now, however. He will be collecting supplies from the ship. But you needn’t worry. This is a small town, as they say, and the porter will know what is yours. He will bring it along in good time.’

    ‘Very well.’ Hull paused a minute, waiting for the man to offer to show him to his room, but he continued playing with the cat, which had by now rolled over to show a white belly. ‘I have been very ill,’ Hull said. ‘I should like to lie down.’

    ‘The landlord will be here shortly. He will be supervising down at the pier this minute.’

    ‘You are not he?’

    ‘Ha! Not I, sir. I am your predecessor at Springbokfontein. Reginald Tweed.’

    ‘Oh, Mr Tweed!’ Hull jumped up and shook hands with the man. ‘I am very pleased to meet you, sir. My apologies; I am not well. I have been ill.’

    ‘Yes, so I’ve heard,’ Tweed said, and the yellow of his beard twitched.

    ‘You have retired, I believe.’

    ‘Yes, blast it! Twenty-five years in this godforsaken country. I’m returning to Southampton, the place of my birth, you know, to live out my last days amongst decent people.’

    ‘I see.’

    Tweed grunted lightly and looked around at the reception desk before turning to Hull. ‘Mr Baker, the landlord, will be an hour or more yet. I may as well give you a tour of the town.’

    Hull paled. ‘I’ve not been well, sir. I cannot go outside. You are very kind, but I’ve not been well.’

    ‘Nonsense, Mr Hull. You will have to be tougher than that if you plan to stay here. Come along.’

    Outside the wind was blowing, sand grains flying into Hull’s beard and teeth.

    ‘You learn to like the taste of sand out here,’ Tweed said, wiping strands of hair back from his forehead with a flat hand. ‘It gets to a point where you don’t feel quite right without a grain or two in your mouth. After all, it’s what the miners eat, isn’t it?’

    At the pier a string of partly clad natives was unloading the Namaqua. It seemed the whole town had come to watch. They stood waving handkerchiefs and calling out, ‘Are there oranges? Have you seen oranges?’ ‘Did the post come?’ A few women were among the group, their children with them. They shielded their eyes with their hands and stood waiting, at times whispering. The children jumped up and down, pointed, laughed. A man as broad as a doorway shouted, ‘Where’s the blasted Cape Smoke? Where is it? There’s people what needs their liquor.’ Further out to sea two ships loaded with ore to carry to Swansea rolled lightly on the waves, and nearby, on a small black-stoned island, the fat bodies of seals rested, their wet fur dulling under the afternoon sun.

    On land, iron-roofed buildings of wood, single storeys all, resembled one another in design and size. Each was as sand-blasted and mouldering as the next. Tweed waved his left hand. ‘Private dwellings there.’ Then he waved his right hand at a row of buildings nestled between mounds of drifting sand. ‘Customs house, ccmc store, workshops, engine shed.’ At the last, five natives with spades were digging the structure out from a sand dune that was beginning to consume it. Little progress was made, the wind lifting the sand off the spades and blowing it back onto the building.

    Beyond lay a dreary settlement of huts and shacks fashioned together from sacks and skins and thin pieces of wood. From where he stood, Hull could make out dark figures in the openings of the shacks, some bent over fires, others standing, their heads cut from view. Outside the huts children ran naked.

    ‘That’s the native settlement,’ Tweed said. ‘Some work here loading ore onto the ships. Mostly they are just loiterers, waiting for work at the Okiep mine.’

    ‘Why not live at Okiep then?’ Hull asked, sliding and sinking with each step in the loose sand of the street. Beside him Tweed walked lightly, unhindered despite his age.

    ‘Okiep is ccmc owned. Most of these places are, but Okiep is still a private town. It’s the headquarters, you see, so you have to get Company permission to stay there, even for one night, even you or me. It was the same at Springbokfontein a decade or two ago before the main works moved to Okiep.’

    Hull scanned the settlement. Shanties lay in unpatterned heaps, climbing over one another up the heights of the surrounding sand dunes and down the further sides. Home upon home appeared to be absorbed by the sand, breathing brown and black from their submersion. Here a dune grew, there it scattered, shifting and rising, reshaped daily. Natives sat amongst it all, too fatigued by idleness to move. Sand blew over their feet. It covered their hair, filled their ears.

    Hull lifted a handkerchief to his nose. Even at this distance the smell of the settlement was rank, its odour brought nearer by the wind. ‘There are so many of them,’ he said. ‘Surely they won’t all get work?’

    ‘There are many, many more of them waiting for you at Springbokfontein. Ten thousand of them, I’d say. But you will see, they need only wait a while. Replacements are always needed at Okiep. Two to three are buried a week over there.’

    ‘A week, you say? Surely not?’

    ‘It’s the smelter. Pollutes it all – air, water, food. There’s no escaping it. Copper must be got and some will die.’ Glancing at his companion’s frown, he added, ‘It’s the way of the mines, Mr Hull. There’s no getting around it, so you may as well accept it and think of it no more. You are a magistrate, remember that, not a visitor from a benevolent society. Leave charitable deeds to spinsters and the clergy, that is my advice to you.’

    © Karen Jennings

  • Bittersweet Romance

    ‘Mr Hull,’ came a whisper.

    He looked up in surprise, turned to left and right, but could see no one nearby. It came again, and this time he saw Mrs McBride motioning to him from the side of the house. He walked towards her, began to speak, but ‘Not here,’ she said and moved off into the veld that lay beyond, stopping only once she had come to the large thorn tree that grew there.

    ‘We shan’t be seen here,’ she said. ‘I wanted to say that I was unfair to you before, Mr Hull.’


    ‘I was. I have always known what my father is. I knew it and I did nothing about it except run away.’ She shook her head and looked up at him. ‘I apologise for what I said to you and I wish to thank you for the care you took of me yesterday. You are a fine man, truly, the finest I know. I did not mean what I said before about… well, all those things. Will you shake hands?’

    ‘Of course. It is all forgotten.’

    ‘I was hoping—’ he began, but ‘I am leaving,’ she said. ‘We all are. Mama and Kitty and George. Only Father will stay here now. We are being sent away on the next ship. It is no longer safe for us.’

    ‘Where will you go?’

    ‘First to Cape Town, then we catch a steamer to London. From there I believe we go somewhere in the north of England, to an uncle who has a manufacturing business.’

    ‘So far? I had hoped… I had thought… after everything, I had thought perhaps that you and I…’

    ‘So much has happened. How can we ever go back to that journey on the mule train or the day we spent together digging for frogs? It is not possible.’

    ‘There is no need to go back. Let us go only forward,’ he said, reaching out for her hand. ‘What I mean to say is, Mrs McBride, Iris, I admire you greatly. I – I – you must know that I love you. You must know that I wish to share my life with you. I beg you, do not leave.’

    She closed her eyes for a moment, gave a strained smile. ‘I must think of George, no matter what my own wishes are, it is he that I must consider. I have no money, Mr Hull. We are dependent on my father’s generosity. I am, I can hardly bear to say it, reliant on him to ensure that George’s future is one that is wholly separate from the world of mining. I cannot rob him of that opportunity. I cannot allow him to remain here and become one of these men ruined by the industry.’

    Hull removed his hat. He twisted the brim, looked down at it. ‘I understand what you are saying, and believe me, I would dearly like to leave this place, Iris, to take you and George wherever in the world you wish to go, but I cannot. I have much to repair here. There is so much that is corrupt and poisonous in mining, as you warned me once before. I have made so many errors, and now I begin to know my duty. Though I cannot say how long it may take to have the law work in favour of the weak in this place, I will do what I can to ensure that it does.’

    ‘Do you honestly believe that you can fix what has happened here?’

    ‘I must try.’

    ‘Then you are right to stay and I would not ask you to do otherwise.’

    He took her other hand, pulled her towards him. ‘When all of this is over and everything has been set to rights, I will come to you. It won’t matter where you are. I will find you, in England or elsewhere. I will come.’

    She leant forward and kissed his cheek, before removing one of her hands from his, and placing it on the trunk of the thorn tree. ‘Do you know what they say about this place? They say that a Hottentot once stood here and said “Wait for me” to his beloved. She waited and waited, but he never came back. The tree grew to shade her from the sun and rain as she waited. Now she is buried beneath it, still waiting.’

Sample Information


Upturned Earth, a new novel by Karen Jennings, takes us to Namaqualand, the copper mining district of the Cape Colony during the winter of 1886.

We join William Hull on his journey from Cape Town, he is seasick throughout, to take up his position as magistrate which, he discovers, has been offered to him because no other man would take it.

Upon arrival in Okiep he is not impressed: ‘The bulk of the town – roads, hillocks, plains – was black with slag.’  Yet, he is determined is make it work:  ‘He would be firm. Punishment would be meted out. The law would be laid down.’  Though he will soon learn that the CCMC – the Cape Copper Mining Company – is a law unto itself.

The Cape Copper Mining Company did exist, but the events described in Upturned Earth are fictional.

Next we are introduced to another protagonist, Molefi Noki, a miner, when he is on his way back from his village in the Idutywa Reserve situated in the Transkei Territory. This is his first visit in five years. After months of helping the villagers with planting and harvesting, he has to go back to job in the Okiep mine, and leave his heavily pregnant wife behind.

It is through these two contrasting figures Hull, seen as being in the pocket of the CCMC management, whether he likes it or not, and Noki clinging on to his job, that a gripping picture emerges of life in and around the copper mines.

The volatile relationship between the miners and management is presented in a delicate, engrossing way. Life may be hard down in the mines but acts of a caring human nature shine through.

Along the way we find out that the miners are not a homogeneous group, they’re made up of white folk having emigrated, the original black population, and the Baster, who are descendants from the bastard children of Dutch men and native women. This gives them a sense of pride, most apparent in their leader their leader, Kaptijn Adam Waterboer.

How does this diverse community copes with the calamities mining tends to inflict on its workforce? Karen’s sensitive account of daily life creates a riveting story that makes you root for Hull and Noki.

At the start of the story, our seasick magistrate Hull meets Mrs McBride, a much put-upon young widow, who tried her best to run away from the influence of the CCMC. How will their relation develop and will it lead to something that gives hope for the future?

Jennings makes you think about what’s good and bad, which side you should be on, something that is often not really such a clear-cut choice. She gives a voice to people who even in today’s society struggle to make themselves heard.

As Karen sums it up: at the very least Upturned Earth exists as 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.

ISBN: 9781907320910
Number of pages: 202
Price: £0

Published 4 September 2019


‘A remarkable and moving book. Evocative of an era of raw possibility; unflinching as it traces the veins of violence that run through South Africa’s bedrock to this day.’ – Henrietta Rose-Innes

‘A mythical tale of heart and soul, cruelty and courage, fear and redemption. A compelling and at times mesmeric read, this story is seamlessly told, of a mining town and the men trapped in a system of manipulation and cruelty. Upturned Earth has deep meaning and resonance with contemporary mining and social issues. Riveting, engrossing, mesmeric…’ – Joanne Hichens

‘Karen Jennings writes with a glinting vividness that erases the years between us and the 1880s. Her modern sensibility reminds us that the plight of miners has hardly changed in the last 130 years. Meticulously researched and grippingly told, this is an intensely human story that sheds light on a neglected corner of South African history. It is literary historical fiction at its best, contributing to a growing genre of post-Marikana writing.’ – Fiona Snyckers

‘Evocative. Masterful. Genius. Karen brings forth her shimmering brilliance in re-creating an important part of South Africa’s history in powerfully imaginative fiction.’ – Tochukwu Okafor

Upturned Earth is her fifth book, showcasing her striking talent that is maturing with every new publication.
Her creative consciousness is steeped in the African imaginary. Her latest novel is an incisive contribution to our understanding of what it means to endure a system that ‘no individual could ever hope to alter or redeem’.’ – Karina M Szczurek in the Cape Times

‘I would so much like to think of William and his Mrs McBride slipping away in the twilight towards a happier, nicer place. But Karen Jennings may have more sober things in mind for them. This is a memorable novel, beautifully conceived and cleverly written. I, for one, will seek out more of Karen Jennings’ work.’ – Julia Stoneham in Historical Novel Review Issue 91

‘As a reader you’re hooked from the very beginning and I found I got completely immersed in the story and lives of Hull and Noki.
The combined descriptions of the harsh reality of living in a mining village at that time, its wild and beautiful landscape and the unfairness of the contrast between white and native workers makes this a heart-breaking story I won’t forget.’ – Elena on Jera’s Jamboree

‘In sum, this is a novel about important subjects (the past (and not so past) history of the mining industry in South Africa, social justice, corruption, beautifully written but horrifying at the same time. I recommend it to people interested in discovering new voices, in stories about unusual subject, especially those set in South Africa, and, in general to anybody eager to read an interesting, but harsh, and well-written historical novel. It’s a must-read.’ – Olga Núñez Miret on her blog

Upturned Earth brings to life the history of a miners’ conflict in 1886, filling in the characters and details from historical documents and creating credible fictional characters to produce a satisfying story. Karen Jennings shows characters struggling to overcome their circumstances. Although Upturned Earth is a historical novel, its concerns and themes of struggles against poverty and the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, have contemporary relevance.’ – Emma Lee on her blog

‘Upturned Earth is a novel with the power to shock. I have to applaud Jennings for her deft balancing of so many strands: from a ghoulish, almost gothic-horror subplot involving the jailer, to two catastrophic events that both have relevance for contemporary times. The title could not be more apt, for here we have history excavated, shaken up, the truth of the violence which continues to this day brought to light.’ – Ellie Hawkes on Elspells

‘The perfectly titled Upturned earth is Jennings’ third novel. Her writing is tight and expressive. 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.’ – Whispering Gums

‘The author is new to me and I was very impressed by Upturned Earth so will seek out more of her work. The plot alternates between an educated white man who’s the authority figure and a black mining labourer. The author really brings the place and era to life. Impressive!’ – Pamela Scott on the Book Lover’s Boudoir

‘Coming across book blogger reviews on Twitter, I was drawn to the story and I wasn’t disappointed and have ordered two more of this author’s novels. How could I read this in lockdown without thinking of health and social care staff battling coronavirus with inadequate PPE? Even worse, a news story of a private care home cutting pay because of the increased costs of the pandemic, echoed the predicament of the miners in this novel when the mine reopened.’ – Anne Goodwin on her blog

‘My review of this book should be published by the Sunday Times soon, but just to say that this was a beautifully written book and is well worth reading.’ – Jen Thorpe on Goodreads

‘It is a slim book, but that does not limit its ability to grapple with weighty topics. Drawing from real events in the distant and recent past, Jennings takes the reader on a journey, digging up and exposing persistent fault lines of power.’ – Jen Thorpe in the South African Sunday Times

‘The well constructed narrative by Karen Jennings brings forth a gallery of human portraits finely drawn. She draws her inspiration from real events, past and present, from the history of South Africa, and means to raise awareness on the miners’ life conditions.’ – Ioana Danaila  in the African Book Review

‘What a story! Richly detailed, this is one which kept me hooked from beginning to end. This is a part of history that I knew nothing about but I relished discovering. Captivating and packed with interesting details, this novel is complex and involved and, ultimately, a rewarding read.’ – Grace on Reviewerlady

‘Sympathising with Noki and to some extent with Hull, the reader is drawn into the unfolding disastrous story to make a racy and unusual novel.
This book enlivens history, the purpose of historical fiction, and looks critically at an actual industry, which is something that can be done better in fiction than in reports. A nicely produced book and a worthwhile read.’ – Sally Evans on Everybody’s Reviewing

‘The story is South African, but in truth it could be anywhere, it could equally be set in the desert mining towns of Australia or against the story of the Lena river gold miners in Tsarist Russia.
Hull’s awakening turns what at first seems a gentle story into something quite powerful.’ – moncur_d LibraryThing

‘While the almost starving copper miners are digging the tunnels of the mine abominable atrocities are come to surface. Easy read echoing long gone labour exploitation to our days.’ – viennamax on LibraryThing

‘The content of the story was interesting and told in an easy style. I would recommend it to gain insight into the hardships forced upon natives and also to get some perspective into the opinions of the settlers.’ – Jewlzee on LibraryThing

‘It is an insightful, atmospheric novel. As I’m not familiar with the history of mining in South Africa, the story gets me thinking and imagining each character and the scenery around them.’ – Maya on goodreads