‘Crooked Seeds’: Karen Jennings’ dystopian Cape Town novel examines water crisis

Karen Jennings' novel, Crooked Seeds, delves into a dystopian Cape Town in 2028 amid a water crisis. Through the character of Deidre, Jennings explores the legacy of South Africa's past, touching on themes of despair, racial politics, and the nation's moral decay.

Somak Ghoshal
Published16 Jun 2024, 04:00 PM IST
Karen Jennings Crooked Seeds is a dystopian novel set in Cape Town,
Karen Jennings Crooked Seeds is a dystopian novel set in Cape Town,

Karen Jennings’ second novel, Crooked Seeds, is set in Cape Town of 2028, which is reeling from an acute water crisis caused by a drought. There are serpentine queues every morning to collect water from tankers, punctuated by outbursts from the residents of South Africa’s oldest city.

The arid barrenness of the cityscape infects hearts and minds. The air is toxic, poisoned by bitter despair, embodied in the character of Deidre van Deventer, the protagonist of the novel.

Technically, this setting qualifies as dystopian—a character is even called Winston as a nod to the hero of George Orwell’s 1984. But reality is stranger than fiction.

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In truth, Cape Town has experienced a severe water shortage in the recent past. Add to it the everyday struggles of people in post-apartheid South Africa, and what you get is a perverse feeling of déjà vu. As T.S. Eliot wisely pointed out in his poem, Burnt Norton, “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past”.

An unsparing chronicler 

Jennings, whose first novel, An Island, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020, is one of the finest and most unsparing chroniclers of modern South Africa. Following in the footsteps of the greats such as Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing and J.M. Coetzee, she explores the complicated legacy of her homeland, vitiated by longstanding racial politics.

In Crooked Seeds, this persistence of the evils of the past comes stingingly alive in the character of Deidre.

In her early 50s, Deidre is a self-proclaimed “cripple,” having lost a leg to an amateur bomb made by her brother Ross, a pro-apartheid crusader on the run from the law. Deidre’s ailing mother Trudy lives in an eldercare home. Her father is dead and her adopted daughter Monica, whose origins remain murky for the most part of the novel, has moved to London to make a fresh start.

Sins of the past 

But the past clings to Deidre like a crusty layer of dirt. Some of the most piercing passages describe the filth and squalor in which she lives. It’s as though her physically revolting existence is a stand-in for the moral decay of South Africa.

In Deidre, Jennings creates an intensely unlikeable character—pathetic and despicable in her neediness, never letting go of a chance to mooch off her neighbours, brazenly entitled, brash, and suffering from the hangover of white supremacy from the apartheid days.

Even when she tries to make well-intentioned comments on politics, Deidre ends up riling Miriam, her “coloured” neighbour whose good graces and charity keep her alive. During her interaction with the police, who are investigating a horrific secret from her past, Deidre remains arrogant and aloof, ignores authority with the chutzpah of a white woman, forgetting her altered status in the new South Africa.

Pitied, humiliated and brutally abused, Deidre is an apparition stuck in a time warp.

Like the scarred nation she comes from, Deidre’s redemption can come only from owning the sins of the past, even at the cost of the unspeakable grief, pain and penance she must suffer.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi.

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First Published:16 Jun 2024, 04:00 PM IST
HomeLoungeArt And Culture‘Crooked Seeds’: Karen Jennings’ dystopian Cape Town novel examines water crisis

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