Upturned Earth

Written by Karen Jennings
Review by Julia Stoneham

This novel is set in mid-19th century Namaqualand, a mining area of South Africa’s Cape Colony. The terrain is as cruel and uncompromising as the corrupt managers of the Cape Copper Mining Company mines who ruthlessly exploit the mixed workforce of stray, white wanderers, indigenous people and established families, descended from Dutch immigrants, all of whom are struggling to survive the despotism of the mine’s supervisors.

Into this unpromising world comes William Hull, newly appointed by the Mining Company to take over the position of Magistrate. Slowly Hull becomes aware of the depth of the depravity and injustice of which he has inadvertently become a part, carrying out his duties without properly engaging with a situation which only slowly begins to become painfully apparent to him.

Relationships, such as Hull’s acquaintance with a Mrs McBride, a young matron who has failed to escape the tyranny of the mine corporation, have begun to stutter into life when disaster strikes. With the full extent of the corporation’s culpability and its tragic results now obvious, Hull does all he can to help and support the mine corporation’s victims and achieves significant results.

I would so much like to think of William and his Mrs McBride slipping away in the twilight towards a happier, nicer place. But Karen Jennings may have more sober things in mind for them. This is a memorable novel, beautifully conceived and cleverly written. I, for one, will seek out more of Karen Jennings’ work.