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#TuesdayBookBlog UPTURNED EARTH by Karen Jennings (@HollandParkPres) Harrowing historical fiction set in South Africa. Must read.

Hi all:

I bring you another novel that I finally managed to catch up with.

Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings

Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings

Upturned Earth is set in Namaqualand, the copper mining district of the Cape Colony, during the winter of 1886.

William Hull arrives at the town to take up the position of magistrate, a position that no one else wanted to accept because of the bleak and depressing locale. He finds that the town is run by the Cape Copper Mining Company and the despotic mine superintendent, Townsend. Meanwhile, Molefi Noki, a Xhosa mining labourer, is intent on finding his brother who was sent to jail for drunkenness and has yet to be released.

Set against the background of a diverse community, made up of white immigrants, indigenous people and descendants of Dutch men and native women, we are given insight into the daily life of a mining town and the exploitation of workers, harsh working conditions and deep-seated corruption that began with the start of commercial mining in South Africa in the 1850s and which continue until now.

While Upturned Earth is a novel about the past, its concerns are very much founded in the present.

Author Karen Jennings
Author Karen Jennings

About the author:

Karen Jennings was born in Cape Town. She has Masters degrees in both English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Holland Park Press has published four of Karen’s previous books: her debut novel Finding Soutbek in 2012, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature 2013 and has been translated into French; a short story collection Away from the Dead in 2014; Travels with My Father, an autobiographical novel, in 2016; in 2018, her first full poetry collection, SPACE INHABITED BY ECHOES; and in 2019 UPTURNED EARTH. Karen currently lives in Brazil.

My review:

Thanks to Bernadette, from Holland Park Press, for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

I’m sorry it took me so long to get to read this novel, because it’s a must-read. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in old mining communities in the UK, but I’ve always been interested in the mining industry, or rather, in the conditions of the workers throughout history, but I am no scholar and have no knowledge of the South African mining communities. Let me tell you that this book was an eye opener. Although in her notes the author explains that the specific events represented in the book are fictional, she notes that the towns and the mining companies (in this case copper mines) existed, and that she got her inspiration for one of the main characters in the novel, magistrate Hull, from magistrate William Charles Scully (a famous South African author and pioneer), and some of the most horrific details in the novel are true. And although the novel is historical fiction, some of the events are reminiscent of much more recent events (like the Marikana Massacre in 2012).

I had never read any books by Karen Jennings before, although she’s received awards and she has a number of publications: novels, short-stories, and poetry books, to her name. I look forward to reading more of her works in the future.

The plot follows two characters that are as different as they could be: one an educated white man, newly arrived to take a position of authority and responsibility (or so he thinks), Magistrate Hull; and the other, Noki, a Xhosa mining labourer, who can only find work far away from home and in inhuman conditions, and who has no illusions about the way things really are. The two men meet and get to collaborate in horrific circumstances, and life for either of them can never be the same again. The action is set in 1886, and the author manages to recreate the atmosphere of the place and the era very effectively without spending too much time in long-drawn descriptions, although due to Hull’s interest in the natural world, we get to hear about the flora and the fauna of the area. We also witness rituals and customs of the place, which greatly aid in familiarising readers with the historical period and the setting.

The book sets up well the social order, with the wealthy whites (especially those well-to-do, like the supervisor of the mine, or professionals like the doctor) at the very top, and the natives working at the mines at the very bottom. The power of the mining companies over the lives (and deaths) of their employees and of the whole town becomes evident as we read the book, and behind the veneer of civilisation and good manners, hide very dark secrets. Corruption is rampant, and nothing is allowed to get in the way of the business at hand. The novel shows the harsh lives of the natives (who must find work elsewhere as they cannot live of the land) and contrasts it to that of Hull, who does not have to lift a finger (he literally doesn’t even have to bathe himself, as somebody does it for him).  Although he changes during the novel, it illustrates how such situations could have taken place, and the complacency and willingness of the population to look the other way.

Hull does not start as a particularly likeable character. He is an inefficient worker, sent to the Cape region because nobody else would go, and he is weak-willed and doesn’t question the status quo. He is like a child (there is a fantastic scene where he and a young boy end up all dirty after trying to dig for frogs in the soil, and all this is taking place while the mine has collapsed and there is a rescue operation going on), and he is only shocked into action when he is confronted with the truth head-on. He is not an evil man, though, only indolent, self-centred and accommodating, and he has a heart (and falls in love with a woman many wouldn’t look at), but he eventually does the right thing and becomes something of a crusader, even though neither side seems to understand or appreciate what he is trying to do. I grew to like Hull, despite his faults and weaknesses, and the author creates a realistic portrayal of a man who is no hero but in the end decides to do the right thing. Noki is a man who lives day to day, who loves his family and his friends, and who simply wants to be able to make a living as a farmer in his village, but that is not possible. He ends up in an impossible situation and does his best to protect himself and others. Although one hopes things work out well for him, the ending only suggests more of the same to come. There are many other characters, some more memorable than others, some chilling and terrifying, and some, like Mrs McBride, trapped in circumstances beyond their control, who have little option but to cope with the situation as best they can.

The novel is told in the third person from the alternating points of view of Noki and Hull, but I must warn readers that there are pretty harsh and explicit scenes of violence, sickness, and true horror in the book. This is a short novel, but it does not pack any punches, and after initial scenes of apparent calm and quiet (although warning signs clearly on display), things deteriorate quickly and we get to see what’s hiding behind the appearances. The pace of the novel is not frantic, and there are contemplative moments, mixed with some frenzied action scenes towards the end. Jennings’ background as a poet becomes evident in many passages of the novel. Here, for example, she is talking about a miner who is very ill but determined to go to work; otherwise they’ll take somebody else in his place:

His face hardened against the pain. He seemed another being then. Ceased to be a man, became instead a moving shape of rock and metal, as though the very ground had risen up around him and was now propelling him forward in the direction of the mine.

Another sample of the writing:

What sort of life is it living underground so that we can be paid less than nothing, where we beg to be allowed to come home once-twice a year to see our family? Never sleeping enough, never eating enough, fighting over the torn shirt that a white man has thrown away.

In sum, this is a novel about important subjects (the past (and not so past) history of the mining industry in South Africa, social justice, corruption, beautifully written but horrifying at the same time. I recommend it to people interested in discovering new voices, in stories about unusual subject, especially those set in South Africa, and, in general to anybody eager to read an interesting, but harsh, and well-written historical novel.

Thanks to Bernadette and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, remember to keep smiling, and above all keep safe.




Guest author post

Guest Author Jo Robinson. Africa, blogging, imagination and sagas.

Hi all:

As you know on Fridays I bring you guest authors and/or literary novelties. I’ve known Jo Robinson for a while, but recently we’ve been interacting more through her fantastic blog, where she shares everything, from her adventures in health, post offices and moving across countries, to humorous videos, and also the posts of many others. Jo is generous in the extreme and she has helped me meet many other bloggers that might otherwise have passed me by. And she’s a great writer, so I thought she more than deserved a visit to my blog.

Here she is!

Author Jo Robinson
Author Jo Robinson

I was born in the windy city of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, but consider myself a citizen of the world. I live with my husband Angus, a dog with an odd sense of humour, four birds, and some chickens.

My stories are mostly about people, and the sometimes dark twists that life takes. I also write science fiction / fantasy books. Shadow People is the first in the Lapillus series.

Facebook link:


Amazon page:


The Visitation. Short Story
The Visitation. Short Story

The Visitation (Short Story)

Tony had often thought that all of humanity was a blight on the face of this planet. And now he knew that he had been right all along.

Fly Birdie. A short story.
Fly Birdie. A short story.

Fly Birdie (Short Story)

Hannah’s life has given her no reason to be anything but bitter and afraid. She tries to hold on to her sanity as her life spirals further into superstition and dread, until a small averted tragedy leads to the melting of her heart, and teaches her how to love.

A Short Story.

Plight of the Rhino
Plight of the Rhino

Jo participated in this anthology for a great cause.

Plight of the Rhino: A Wildlife Anthology by Springbok Publications

Plight of the Rhino is the first wildlife anthology by Springbok Publications.

The stories and poems, written by international writers, depict wildlife in all its glory. The book will take you on a journey across continents and introduce you to some iconic as well as lesser known wildlife species. These heartfelt stories recognise the joys of the animal kingdom and the heartache of poaching and extinction, facing our wildlife today.

We will donate a minimum of £1 from the sale of each book to Save the Rhino International. To find out more about its rhino conservation work please visit

Stories and Poems by: Teresa Ashby, Chris Brown, Liz Cox, Jean Dawson, Kirsty Ferry, Teresa Fouché, Elizabeth Glanville, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, Amanda James, Sandra Jensen, Elizabeth Koufidou, Elaine McKenna, Dulcinea Norton-Smith, Emma Louise Oram, Christine Parmenter, Rebecca Raisin, Paula RC Readman, Jo Robinson, Gill Sainsbury, Holly Stacey, Amos van der Merwe, Tanja Vermaak, Stephen Wade, Matthew Glenn Ward All contributors kindly waived their fees for this worthy cause. Let’s save the rhino!

African Me & Satellite TV
African Me & Satellite TV

African Me & Satellite TV

For many years Suzette has managed very well to live her life without actually taking part in it, avoiding any possibility of pain by very carefully ignoring reality. Until something happens. Something so terrible that she has no choice but to abandon her cocoon of safety.
After the brutal beating of an elderly domestic worker, Suzette takes her in, and sets off a chain of events that leads to devastating heartbreak. And an unexpected hero changes everything. Finally finding her voice, she speaks out, and her world explodes, culminating in the death of a very special man.
On her path to make amends, she discovers the story of his life, connects with the people of his past, and finds the chance to fully live her life once again if that’s what she chooses to.

Shadow People 1. The Finding
Shadow People 1. The Finding

Shadow People 1 (The Finding)

After Natalie and Gabe discover a hidden room, they are hurled across time and space, and find themselves on Lapillus, a beautiful world made up of precious gems. But they soon realise that Lapillus is home to an ancient evil when they are attacked by the demonic wraiths of the Nefandus.
They find themselves thrown together with a group of beings vastly different to them in this lifetime, but closely connected through the aeons. They realise that the prophesies of all have come to fruition, and that without their intervention the fate of the universe is at stake.
With the guidance of the angelic Gluri and the help of the mysterious sentient spacecraft, the Vimana, the race is on to find out what the Nefandus want, and prevent evil from winning the battle of all time.

 Thanks to Jo Robinson for visiting, to all of you for reading, and you know what to do, like, share, comment, and most of all CLICK!

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