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Review: Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings

Upturned Earth“You learn to like the taste of sand out here … It gets to a point where you don’t feel quite right without a grain or two in your mouth. After all, it’s what the miners eat, isn’t it?” With these words the new magistrate of a mining town in Namaqualand is welcomed by his predecessor. It is winter of 1886, and after an arduous journey, William Hull arrives in Springbokfontein to guard the rule of law in the desolate place. Hull is well-meaning but obtuse and naïve; it takes him a while to grasp that there is only one real authority in town, the Cape Copper Mining Company, and that his attempts at justice are also being treacherously undermined in his own home, under his very nose. The battle of wills that ensues has tragic consequences.

At the same time, Molefi Noki returns to the copper mines from his village in the Idutywa Reserve in the Transkei Territory, where he and his wife had just lost a baby after yet another difficult pregnancy and birth. Grieving and desperate, the Xhosa miner embarks on a search for his missing brother who had been sent to the notorious local jail for drunkenness and seems to have disappeared since then.

Tensions between the miners and the Company arise over working conditions and pay. After a tragedy claims many lives, the conflict escalates into outright horror. “It’s the way of the mines; you should know that well enough. How many old miners do you see walking around? … None. No miner sits by the fire in his old age with his grandchildren bouncing on his knees. It’s the same for all of us”, one of the mine workers reminds Noki.

Shattered by the Marikana Massacre of 16 August 2012, and inspired by historical sources about the Cape Copper Mining Company, Karen Jennings wrote Upturned Earth “as a comment on the history of commercial mining in South Africa – the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present,” as she states in her author’s notes. The novel is a sobering reminder of the roots of everything that has been going wrong in the mining industry for decades. Written from the perspectives of Hull and Noki, Upturned Earth throws a light into the darkest places of this history and shows that not much has changed, and there is so much to fight for.

Jennings is a novelist, short-story writer and a poet. Upturned Earth is her fifth book, showcasing her striking talent that is maturing with every new publication. Born in Cape Town in 1982, she currently lives in Brazil, but her creative consciousness is steeped in the African imaginary. Her latest novel is an incisive contribution to our understanding of what it means to endure a system that “no individual could ever hope to alter or redeem.”

Upturned Earth

by Karen Jennings

Holland Park Press, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 13 September 2019.