Finding Soutbek is a wise and troubling story about the burden of history that asks whether it’s possible for a nation to transition from social, political and cultural separation into a democratic and fair society. In this debut novel, Karen Jennings merges diverse voices representing the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to expose the stark contrasts and divisions of the post-Apartheid generation living on South Africa’s western coast.
The setting is a fictional town split into two communities separated by a dry riverbed, separated geographically but also by race (the lower towners are white), by class (the upper towners are fishermen – the lower towners are wealthy farmers and city workers), and by wealth (the lower town is filled with holiday homes and “retired couples come to live out their days with a sea view”). As the story begins, fire sweeps through the upper town, destroying homes and possessions. A storm sweeps in behind, leaving the upper towners homeless and destitute, reliant on the goodwill and kindness of the lower towners. Cape Town is too far away; the government will only send food when they have none. With much hand-wringing, and after a week of families sleeping on the beach and in the abandoned fish factory, the town’s first “colored mayor”, Pieter Fortuin, provides temporary shelter in the “brand new” town hall in lower town.
Jennings draws out the inequalities and injustices subtly, with quiet power and deep humanity through an assured control of the narrative. Structured in layers, the story of contemporary Soutbek is related in parallel with extracts from its past through lengthy quotations from New Monomotapa: The History of the Soutbek Region, recently published in a flurry of media attention. The mayor had collaborated with retired academic Terence Pearson to compile the book from recently discovered diaries of a seventeenth-century Dutch explorer named Pieter van Meerman, in which he suggests that the early settlers founded a utopian society at Soutbek; “the birthplace of assimilation and integration”. Fortuin hopes that “The History” will bring prosperity back to Soutbek and provide an inheritance that his son will be proud of, while “the Professor,” as Pearson is known, hopes to rebuild his career.
Deft characterisation reveals their personal burdens. There is the mayor’s wife, Anna, rescued from a life of poverty and beatings; Sara, an orphan the mayor brings home to care for Anna; “the Professor”, nesting like a destitute in the detritus of his unwritten magnum opus; Willem, the mayor’s nephew, living in poverty in upper town; David, the mayor’s boarding-school-educated son ill at ease in his hometown -“The History”, it seems, will solve all their problems. As Jennings shows, it is a burden too large to bear.
Janette Currie blogs at BookRambler