Monday 29 March 2021

Review by Sally Evans of "Upturned Earth" by Karen Jennings

A men’s book written by a woman, this historical novel about late-nineteenth-century mining conditions in a South African township is a thoroughly researched and detailed portrayal of a community of poverty-stricken workers dependent on mine work for a living. It cleverly keeps the workers in view, using a few middle-men with various degrees of conscience to hold the story together. 

Blindly overseeing rough justice, Hull, the new magistrate, deals with fights and spats in the corrupt society. He comes across the boy Noki whose brother has been arrested and disappears. Noki’s search for his brother holds the timeline of the story, until the inevitable mine disaster in which Noki is one of the few to survive. The incompetent Hull faces up to his shortcomings, leaving his amateur natural history studies to warn the sympathetic rich mine owner’s daughter away as she tries to intervene in a workers' strike on behalf of her absent father. Their incipient romance is torn apart as she is sent home with her jars of homemade jam intended to feed the starving. Her father, brought back from the comfort of Johannesburg, sends his daughter back to England and deals with the strike in the only way he knows, with soldiers and a massacre. There are strong male characters among both workers and controllers, but mostly the women come packaged as ‘women and children’ or are otherwise drunk and in despair. 

The acceptance of rough and ready life, dangerous sea transport, lack of education and comforts, poor communications and uncheckced wickedness, give this world a grim reality. We come to believe in the boy Noki, the Cornishman Tregowning, and the motley nature of this mining community. Sympathising with Noki and to some extent with Hull, the reader is drawn into the unfolding disastrous story to make a racy and unusual novel. 

It is always difficult to guess how individuals would respond to historical conditions. What knowledge can we have of people’s feelings in such times?  A novel such as Upturned Earth fills the gaps in historical records with imagination and informed guesswork. We are shown the responses both of the workers caught up this situation and their overseers, as these men rationalise the harsh world they are helping to maintain.

There isn’t room for more women in this book. The kindly but immature Iris – Hull uses her first name but once – is sent back to England. Jam making, and looking after her young privileged son, are all she is fit for. Was it absence of power among women that made those worlds so harsh? Was it an acceptance that mining was necessarily inhuman?

This book enlivens history, the purpose of historical fiction, and looks critically at an actual industry, which is something that can be done better in fiction than in reports. A nicely produced book and a worthwhile read. 

About the reviewer
Sally Evans is a bookseller and poet.Her books include The Bees (2008) and Poetic Adventures in Scotland (2014), both from Diehard publishers. She edited Poetry Scotland for 20 years, and is currently studying for a PhD at Lancaster University. Her novel Wildgoose: A Tale of Two Poets is due out from Red Squirrel's Postbox Press soon.

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