Tuesday, July 10, 2012

book review: Finding Soutbek by Karen Jennings

Occassionally you will see children interviewed for some lifestyle programme and they are asked what their favourite subject is. When asked about history sadly some will reply that it's 'boring' or 'just about old kings and dates'. Those statements will be countered by that old quote about not knowing history and allowing horrible things to be repeated.

But history can also be a powerful force providing identity, pride and even hope to people that are struggling to find much good in their current situation but find solace and inspiration from the past. That is one of the themes Jennings is exploring here with the town of Soutbek struggling to find a place on the South African map. Ignored, despite a fire and flood that have devastated half the town, it's a History of the town that provides some hope. It describes the adventurers that first discovered the town and as the book becomes popular the tourism and national interest provides a glimpse into a different future for Soutbek.

Along with looking at the importance of history there is also a strong investigation of poverty and wealth and the condequences for those that find themselves on the dividing line of those two states. The mayor and co-author of the history book are trying to put the town on the map but Soutbek risks division and segregation once the upper town is destroyed in a fire and the inhabitants have to come down to the lower town.

As those from the destroyed homes camp out in the fish factory by the sea and start to litter the town with the smells and sites of poverty any dream of it becoming a tourist destination are smashed.

At the centre of it all is the mayor Pieter who has risen to a position of wealth and influence after a career selling stolen goods accompanied with a determination not to remain in poverty.

He loses sight of what really matters - love and family - and as it all comes tumbling down is left to realise that the family he cared so much for in terms of providing status and wealth, were not particularly interested in either.

This is a slow building story, interspersing the present with the past of the memoirs of Soutbek's founders, but the idea that the town was founded in a spirit of openness and love becomes a bitter irony as the upper and lower town becomes segregated. Bearing in mind this is set in South Africa and Pieter is the first black mayor, there is a great sadness that the have and have-nots have emerged again.

A powerful book that does make you dwell on the idea of your own response and obligation to others. It also underlines the truth that money does not equal happiness.