“They were unschooled, these men who were not able to sign their names or even to read them, and travelled the colonies working as farmhands, stevedores, miners or wagon drivers. (…) They were christened too by scars or afflictions, acts of strength, the colour of their hair, the shape of their ears and noses, losing the name of their birth as they sailed or rode or walked their way from home. (…) Wages they drank, while friendships and animosities alike were ended with punches and knife-cuts in brawls that spilled from pubs into streets and alleys. Theirs was an existence of violence, of dirt, of work and drink. They had no time for weakness.”
When William Hull arrives in a mining community from Namaqualand in the Cape Colony at the end of the 19th century, he does not know yet how this discovery is going to change his life. The tough life of the miners harshly exploited by the managers, the lack of any consideration slowly makes Hull reconsider his mission in Namaqualand.
The well constructed narrative by Etisalat Prize for Literature shortlisted Karen Jennings brings forth a galery of human portraits finely drawn. Among them are Noki, Solomon and the protagonist, the magistrate William Hull, based on a real person living in the 19th century. His strength is challenged when faced with the dramatic events in the mining colony. Iris McBride’s character, on the other hand, unveils as the story moves on, and becomes more complex and nuanced at the very end : from a childless widow with no money, Iris proves to be much more than that. The ending leaves the reader imagine a world of justice and happiness.
Karen Jennings draws her inspiration from real events, past and present, from the history of South Africa, and means to raise awareness on the miners’ life conditions : ” On 16 August 2012 South Africa experienced the terrible Marikana Massacre, where peacefully striking miners were gunned down by police. This tragedy made me want to look at the history of commercial mining in South Africa, and how, despite the passage of more than 150 years, the exploitation and mistreatment of miners continues to this day. “
Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings
978-1-907320-91-0 / Holland Park Press (2019)
Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She has a PhD in Nigerian postcolonial literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She is also the author of a collection of short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. Trilingual in Romanian, French and English, she teaches English language and literature to highschool students in France.