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Friday, 11 April 2014

Book Review: Karen Jennings 'Finding Soutbek'

I first heard about Karen Jennings Finding Soutbek October 2012 at the African Book Festival. At the event, a representative from the publishers, Holland Park Press, read an excerpt, in which Soutbek's 'troubles, hardships and corruption, but also its kindness, strong community and friendships' was introduced. While I didn't buy the book then, as they say good things come to those who wait - and I finally got a chance, courtesy of a review copy from Holland Park Press to read it. 

In the acknowledgements, Karen Jennings writes:


'At all times I have been careful to remember that though this is a work 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'.


After reading the book I struggled to find words to describe how I felt about it. I've only recently been able to figure out. This was a really depressing read. Even the cover signifies the bleakness you are about to enter as you get introduced to the imaginary  town of Soutbek and its people. 


Set in South Africa, Soutbek is a small fishing town on the western coast, which has been devastated by a huge fire. The upper town, which is inhabited by the towns poorest residents, is the area that has been affected. Having lost their homes and much of their livelihood they are left to survive off of the charity of the richest people in Soutbek who live in the lower town. Yet, after the fire came floods and now the town has been cut off making things even more difficult for the upper town people who have been sleeping in damp, unhygiening conditions and the lower town people who complain about the state of the town now that the upper town is destroyed.


Soutbek's first ever coloured Mayor - Pieter Fortuin, who worked to get himself out of poverty, is doing his best to get things back on track but also bring in much needed investment to Soutbek. The Mayor and a professor Dr. Pearson have written a book together - The History of Soutbek drawn from the diaries of Pieter van Meerman, a vryburgher (freeman) and seventeenth-century Dutch explorer. This book is what the Mayor is counting on to drive tourism and bring investments into their small fishing town, which will also help him rebuild the upper towns lost homes. There is, however, something else lurking behind the Mayor’s act of kindness. The History of Soutbek, in turn, is the other story that run's parallel to the fire stricken modern-day Soutbek. Set in the 17th century, this part of the novel reads like it's fallen straight out of a history book. We follow the adventures of Pieter, a group of Dutch explorers and some locals they meet on the way, eventually marry and establish what is today Soutbek. Towards the end of the book the modern and historical accounts merge with consequences for the modern-day inhabitants of Soutbek. 

The Mayor’s story and the historical accounts, are not the only tales in Finding Soutbek. There is his wife, Anna, who he isolates from the rest of the inhabitants of Soutbek in her own private beach. They also have a son, David, who is in boarding school.  She is bored, lonely and miserable until the mayor takes in Sara, a homeless girl (not from Soutbek). With time Sara and Anna develop a bond with Sara also teaching Anna how to read as they delve into the History of Soutbek. There is also the Mayor's nephew, Willem, who lives in the lower part of the town.

I’ll say it again. This book was depressing and I had visions of a grey and bleak town with grim inhabitants, a stressed Mayor and a lonely housewife. But I guess it was showing the harsh reality of the lives of people living in this fictional town. Calling it grey and depressing should not be taken to mean this is a terrible book. Far from that, it is well-written, the blending of the historical narrtives with contemporary Soutbek was done brilliantly and Karen Jennings definitely captured the morsoness of the town, the sadness of Anna and the stress of being a Mayor in what seemed like an ill-forsaken town.

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