Away from the Dead by Karen Jennings
Published by Holland Park Press 24 September 2014
130pp, paperback, £8.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
This slim volume, a collection of Karen Jennings’ short stories which have been published in various journals, immediately conjures up the sights, sounds and smells of Africa, and South Africa in particular. There is a deep sense of melancholy in all the stories, many of which concern people who have been displaced or feel out of step with their situations.
It opens with the title story about Isaac, an old man who has to leave the only home he has known and the cemetery where his family is buried as the land he has worked is being developed for luxury housing and a golf course. Alone, Isaac finds himself cut off from the only certainty he has left, that he will be buried next to his grandparents, parents, siblings, wife and children. He takes to the road with no idea of what to do next and tries to find work. However his age is held against him and he ends up sitting on his tattered cardboard suitcase wondering what to do next. Jennings carefully avoids sentimentality in her writing which serves to make Isaac’s story all the more moving.
The collection closes with ‘Resurrection’, the tale of a young father immobilized by the stresses of everyday life and his wife and son’s attempts to cure him. In between are more tales of ordinary Africans, scratching out a living while waiting for the changes promised by the end of apartheid to reach them. There is a short piece about the 2011 death of Andries Tatane, a young South African who was killed by police during a peaceful demonstration demanding jobs and better pay. ‘Muzungu’ is about a young white woman visiting Uganda who is mistaken for a foreigner. She struggles to explain she is not a muzungu but a South African on a trip to see the source of the Nile in Lake Victoria but finds that people have already decided who and what she is from the colour of her skin. Like many of the stories, it is subtle but telling. Jennings also includes some magic realism in the ‘Narrative of Emily Louw’, based on events as related by Emily herself, where Emily’s missing husband speaks to her in her dreams.
Jennings’ writing is evocative, bringing everyday existence in Africa alive with her sharp descriptions and intriguing characters. Some stories are very short, some are a snapshot of a moment in time, but all benefit from her precise observations of the minutiae of daily life and this imbues them with an sense of authenticity. The occasional use of Afrikaans words and phrases add to this. What links the stories is the sense of longing each of her characters feel; longing for a better life, a better job, a better spouse, a better country. The sadness that Africa, and South Africa especially, is still such an unequal society haunts every page but the lack of self-pity is admirable. This is a fine short story collection that shows a maturity belying the author’s relatively tender years.