Review: Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings (2019)

I have to admit that when I was first made aware of this novel, I did experience a slight jolt. My own novel-in-progress is also set in a mining town in Southern Africa, and when a description of this book arrived in my email inbox, I wondered if perhaps the universe was playing a cruel trick on me. Luckily, the differences are sufficiently reassuring that I can put aside my ‘panicked writer’ cap and don my ‘objective reader’ one (I may have to get actual caps one day) in order to review a book which matches up so uncannily to my own interests.

Set in 1886 in Namaqualand, the copper mining district of the Cape Colony, Upturned Earth opens with the arrival of William Hull, who is due to take over as magistrate. He soon finds out that his is a job no one else wanted: it is a thankless task, beset by the difficulty of working in a town which is unofficially run by the Cape Copper Mining Company. At the head of the CCMC in Okiep is superintendent Townsend, whose grip on the town borders on tyrannical. Jennings very cleverly sets up the opening of her novel so that it has all the hallmarks of a nineteenth century adventure tale: the arrival of the white man in a strange land, an overload of sensory details to build up a picture of the exotic location, and formal dialogue that harks back to an earlier time. She then proceeds to brilliantly subvert these tropes in the story that follows.

Hull’s third person narrative is interspersed with that of a second protagonist, the Xhosa mining labourer Molefi Noki, who at the start of the novel is travelling back to the mine after his first visit home for five years. The difficulties he faces are juxtaposed with the minor inconveniences of Hull’s ‘settling in period’ – not only has Noki just lost yet another child, he is also seeking information about his brother, a fellow mine worker, who has been jailed for drunken behaviour and not heard of since. Through her use of these two protagonists, Jennings is able to explore the diverse inhabitants of the town, creating a portrait of life under brutal circumstances for those doing the labouring, and touches of luxury for those at the top.

Though Noki is the more sympathetic of the two characters, I appreciated the fact that both were complex men, not on the same side by any means, but not diametrically opposed. Hull is impulsive, almost childishly stubborn, and at times quite unlikeable, despite his desire to do the right thing. I felt this was a strength of the novel: he is both admirable and also sometimes quite wrong in his judgements and assessments of character. I would have liked a bit more of his internal thoughts, in order to better understand him, and I could easily have spent more time inside both Hull’s and Noki’s heads. (However, I think that wishing a novel was longer is a good sign.) There are different registers at play in the book, which worked very well for me, and flashes of brilliance in Jennings’ prose which definitely make me want to read more from this author.

Upturned Earth is a novel with the power to shock: just when you might relax into what seems at times like a conventional historical novel, the plot takes several violent turns. I don’t want to spoil the story here, but I have to applaud Jennings for her deft balancing of so many strands: from a ghoulish, almost gothic-horror subplot involving the jailer, to two catastrophic events that both have relevance for contemporary times. This is a historical novel which cannot be confined to the past. The title could not be more apt, for here we have history excavated, shaken up, the truth of the violence which continues to this day brought to light. Written partly in response to the Marikana Massacre of 2012, the book reminds us, as the author states in her notes, of “the exploitation, conditions and corruption that began in the 1850s and continue to the present.” The characters’ mentions of mining communities in other parts of the world open it up further as a global issue, and the ambiguity of the book’s ending reminds us that this is not a finished story by any means.

Upturned Earth is published by Holland Park Press

NOTE: I received a gifted copy of this novel from Holland Park Press in exchange for an honest review.


4 thoughts on “Review: Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings (2019)

  1. Great review Ellie, this sounds like such an intriguing and good book, I might have to give it a go. I will also patiently be awaiting your own novel!! xx


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