I was kindly provided a copy of Finding Soutbek from the publisher, Holland Park Press, in exchange for an honest review. Earlier this year Finding Soutbek caught my eye when it was shortlisted for the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature.
Here is the blurb from GoodReads:
“The focal point of the novel is the small town of Soutbek. Its troubles, hardships and corruption, but also its kindness, strong community and friendships, are introduced to us in a series of stories about intriguingly interlinked relationships. Contemporary Soutbek is still a divided town – the upper town destitute, and the lower town rich, largely ignorant – and through a series of vivid scenes, the troubled relationship between Pieter Fortuin, the town’s first coloured mayor, and his wife Anna is revealed. In so many ways the past casts a long shadow over the present, not in the least through the unreliable diaries of Pieter Meerman promoted by Pieter Fortuin and Professor Pearson, a retired white historian. They give us a unique insight into the lives of the seventeenth-century Dutch explorers, and hint at a utopian society, suggesting that Soutbek is the birthplace of assimilation and integration. The blossoming friendship between Anna, Sara, a foundling, and Willem, Pieter Fortuin’s nephew, is unsettled by David, Anna’s and Pieter’s son. His father has bought David a bright future, but when he comes back from boarding school David appears alienated from his father and from his old friend, the former gardener Charles Geduld, just as Anna starts to accept him as her son. Is there hope, or are we left with Willem’s conclusion that ‘he would spend the rest of his life working off the debt of his family’s poverty’?”
I quickly read Finding Soutbek as it flows easily, fluidly, interweaving the stories of the characters living in Soutbek and the journal entries of a 1600s explorer as he and his group made their way to the area. It is set on the west coast of South Africa and follows the happenings of a small fishing town after a fire destroys the poor area of town and the release of a history book written by the town’s mayor. The stories of the people are sad and even tragic but true as this is the story of many in South Africa. This novel is about what people will do to make a better life, what they will (or will not) go through to stay alive, and what they will sacrifice to get ahead.
Jennings’ descriptions of the landscape and the place are vivid and the images of the river, the small poor town, the cliffs, and the Namaqualand flowers came easily to mind. This is a story about people, impoverished people and people trying to break free from the bonds of impoverishment. It is also about those people who seek out small sea towns for retirement but who turn a blind eye to those less fortunate than themselves who have and always will live there. It is a story about a forgotten people who are trying their best to live in small towns on the outskirts of urban life in contemporary South Africa but where change has not yet arrived and where poverty threatens to extinguish them before it does. The book unravels to make all kinds of revelations in both plot and character. I would say this book is mostly character driven with sprinklings of well written descriptions of the landscape. It was well written and I really enjoyed it. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about people and character, and anyone interested in South Africa and how some live on its coast.