“Away from the Dead” is a collection of fifteen short stories. Each is clearly located in South Africa and each explores a different facet of life in South Africa so although each is written with a minimalist, light touch, using few but necessary words to enable readers to picture the setting and the characters, no two stories feature the same topic even if similar themes emerge.
The title story focuses on a farm worker forced to leave his home and the graveyard where his wife is buried to search for work where he is no longer required and his age counts against him. He is forced to decide whether to stay in poverty or move away in the hope of finding work. Age also emerges as a theme in “Making Challah” but this time the focus is on an ageing woman with the baking an extended metaphor for her life and need to keep rituals going. The darker sides of South African society are explored in “On the Train” where a young man is returning home after committing murder, “From Dark” which shines a spotlight on illegal mining, “Allotment” where a couple struggle to survive in a zinc shack in the shadow of new stadium being built for the World Cup and “Andries Tatane” who dies during a protest in Ficksburg. The darkest story is Mia’s. “In the Shark” sees her yearning to temporarily throw off her caring responsibilities and see this magnificent shark the fishermen boast and tell tales about. The shark is also a metaphor for darker desires as it circles the fishing village and draws Mia to a course of action that destroys her sense of self.
In each story, the characters are in three dimensions and live on long after the story is finished. Readers feel the huge sense of loss and need for closure of Emily Louw whose husband left to find work but never returned. When she reports him missing to the police, the officer regards her and implies he’s not surprised her husband left when he looks at the poor sight of her, nursing a newborn, shredded by anxiety and barefoot. A young couple struggle to build a relationship when their expectations differ: she expects lavish gifts and him to have thought of everything while he wants simple pleasures and her company when their planned picnic is rained off. It’s hard not to feel for Alletjie who scrapes by from keeping goats and chickens and receiving her brother’s disability grant while her alcoholic husband and brother do nothing and she dreams of turning their hand to mouth existence into a life.
Karen Jennings’ stories explore and develop these themes, using credible characters in realistic settings simply making the best of their lot. She does not moralise or tell the reader what to think. Overall the impression is that South Africa is still trying to find its way post-Apartheid, to process its history and work towards peace. Progress is being made however it is still a very uneven, unequal society. But not without ambition to make change, just as most of her characters are motivated to move towards a better life or at least make the best of their situation. Whilst the stories in “Away from the Dead” deal with the darker aspects of South Africa society, they are not without hope and suggest a society in transition.
By Emma Lee