Authors like Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer or Jeanette Winterson impress with their literary chameleon natures. Their craft is writing. Their tools – an empty page, words, punctuation – might seem simple. But they astound with the versatility of their use. Their talents and imaginations do not fear rules or boundaries. They bend forms to accommodate the multifaceted observations and ideas that come alive through their creativity. They are no cookie cutters. Whether it is poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, literary or genre, these writers rise to the challenge of versatility and deliver excellence.
The South African author Karen Jennings, who is currently based in Brazil, is only at the beginning of her career as a wordsmith, but it is showing all the signs that she is destined for the kind of greatness the writers mentioned above have achieved in the course of their lives. Not even forty, Jennings has already published a novel, Finding Soutbek (2012), which was shortlisted for the prestigious Etisalat Prize for Literature. It was followed in 2014 by Away from the Dead, a short story collection, and two years later by a profoundly touching autobiographical work – part memoir, part novel – Travels with My Father.
Jennings’s short stories won the Africa Region prize in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and the Maskew Miller Longman Award. They have been featured in publications around the world, along with her poetry. A few of these poems have now found a home in Jennings’s elegant debut collection with the evocative title Space Inhabited by Echoes.
Inspired by the varied transitions in the author’s personal life, the poems included in the volume trace the impact of change on the young woman’s trajectory. The book is divided into four parts, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the lived private transformations, whether experienced in relationships, or through migration across continents and the following adaptation and integration into a new country, or through the people who accompany Jennings on her path.
Readers familiar with Travels with My Father will remember that Jennings fell in love with a Brazilian scientist working in Cape Town soon after her father died of cancer. The couple were married and Jennings decided to relocate to Brazil to be with her husband when he received a job offer in his home country. In the poems of the first two parts of Space Inhabited by Echoes, Jennings records the process of falling in and out of love, its insecurity and longing, and the heat of desire. The collection opens with the sensual poem set at the height of summer, January: “By nightfall we had removed / our clothes, slipped / into a pool thick as breath, / no longer able to distinguish / between ourselves and the water.” Eventually, the lovers emerge and break apart: “And in that separation / was held the memory of tomorrow; a rehearsal for the heat to come.”
Jennings is a storyteller. She chooses her images and the narrative links with care. In Morning Alone, one of the lovers is still fast asleep behind a closed door, the other waiting: “But for me there is no day until you / wake, despite the fading light, the hours few.” The two lines are perfect examples of how Jennings captures the fragile tenderness of a relationship. The poems are intimate and deeply personal, but like all good poetry they hold universal truths. In a piece like A Study, Jennings tells the story of life’s evolution on our planet only to juxtapose it with what it would mean not to be able to experience yearning and heartbreak, the loss that we all feel when a loved one has left our warm embrace.
She writes about the end of a relationship with equal insight, how sometimes disillusionment takes over and promises spoken with conviction no longer apply, “Just words from a chill summer / as sodden as the boat bottom / in which we rowed and rowed, / our eyes on our watches, and the land.” Or consider the exquisite lines from the poem Phonecall which lend the entire collection its title: “How strange to find / after years of love that / what remains between / us is only // space inhabited by echoes / and the people we / once were.”
An echo is quieter than the original sound it follows. And poetry has that ability to distil and deliver the most essential of impressions travelling through the space of memory. In the third and fourth part of the book, Jennings concentrates on the move to another country and the attempt to find belonging. The flat the newlyweds rent is on the seventeenth floor. With its merciless heat and foreign ways, the city around feels constantly unfamiliar. In her dreams, Jennings is haunted by her previous home in the Cape and struggles to adjust to her new reality in We Came to Stay: “I didn’t do as well / as expected. / Not with change, / the shared house, / a new language.”
To navigate the “dark river” of depression and alienation which follows is extremely tough, not only as an individual but as a couple. In Let Me Go, Jennings speaks of “my failure to come home.” And in Survival, we find “a genus of fish, / compelled to adapt / by exile, stark isolation / and rarity of food // is able, by pushing / aside its gills / and relocating its heart, to swallow its victims / whole.” Sometimes that is what it takes to make a living in a hostile environment.
Towards the end of Space Inhabited by Echoes, Jennings turns to the important figures in her life to face the weight of inheritance and family secrets, and brings a sense of closure to a process of becoming. As an author, Jennings is already delivering on the huge promise of her early successes. Words sparkle in her hands. Readers of her work can expect to be enlightened in all possible ways.
Space Inhabited by Echoes
by Karen Jennings
Holland Park Press, 2018
An edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 10 August 2018.