“Finding Soutbek” Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press) – novel review

Finding Soutbek by Karen Jennings book coverFinding Soutbek” opens with residents of Soutbek’s upper town watching their homes burn while their mayor thinks about soup kitchens and emergency accommodation. With the aim of encouraging tourism to bring money to the region, the mayor, Pieter Fortuin, has been collaborating on a history of Soutbek, describing how a group of Dutch explorers found the region and intermarried with a local tribe, creating a racially mixed town. It’s not spelt out but the poor residents of upper town are black and the wealthier residents of lower town are white. The setting is South Africa.

Pieter Fortuin himself is a self-made, coloured man, wrenching himself out of poverty and buying a house with a private beach for his wife. He effectively bought his wife from her family as they found themselves homeless and he spoke to her father, offering the family money to make a start elsewhere if he were allowed to marry their daughter. Thereafter, he forbade his wife contact with her family. His wife, Anna, tries to help with the soup kitchen but finds herself managed out of the way by locals who think dispensing soup beneath a mayor’s wife. Their son, David, has been packed off to boarding school. She has little to do until the mayor takes in Sara, who homeless and is also not from Soutbek, and Anna and Sara begin to read the mayor’s history book. They’re joined in their reading by Willem, the mayor’s nephew and general right hand man.

The wealthier residents of lower town complain about the soup kitchen, the lack of action in demolishing and rebuilding upper town, particularly now the relentless rain has caused floods and the smells from the redundant fish factory where families have been sleeping and living in damp, cramped, unhygienic conditions. Flooding has cut the town off, preventing supplies getting in so upper town residents have been surviving on the soup kitchen and gathering wild berries and edible plants. Even the mayor begins to get tired of the apathy the poorer residents have, but with no work they can’t feed and clothe themselves let alone rebuild their homes.

But the mayor has plans. As the floods clear, he tells the residents of upper town they will have new brick homes with plans for jobs in the pipeline, although omits to mention that the new homes will be built further along the coast, away from Soutbek. The history has been a success and Soutbek is beginning to attract tourists. However, questions are being raised about the accuracy of the history as the professor the mayor collaborated with is a supporter of apartheid and residents begin to suspect there’s an ulterior motive behind it.

The mayor is adamant he’s doing the right thing for his poverty-stricken residents. Just as he believes he was right to effectively buy his wife out of her poverty. His wife, however, misses her family and his nephew Willem believes the people have the right to settle where they’ve made roots and families, even if the combination of nature and poverty has left them in pieces. Against a backdrop of apartheid, these issues take on a poignancy that would be absent from the story if it weren’t set in South Africa.

Karen Jennings writes with compassion and humanity, but shows that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The mayor is sympathetically drawn, his motives are good but his downfall lies in his failure to identify with the people he’s trying to help, his distance from his own roots. Alienated by displacement from her own family and finding her new neighbours regard her as different from them, Anna finds herself doubly isolated so is drawn to Sara, another non resident of Soutbek. Karen Jennings doesn’t preach but tells a story, which, like a parable, is left for the reader to interpret.

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