Crooked Seeds (Karen Jennings) – book review

Crooked Seeds by Booker-prize longlisted author Karen Jennings is a dark indictment of white South Africa and the legacy of apartheid. Centred around an irredeemably self-centred character, Jennings takes readers into a possible future South Africa while also interrogating the sins of the past.

The opening of Crooked Seeds clearly draws on the recent South African drought and its impact on Cape Town. Diedre lives on her own in a small squalid apartment which she was moved into when the family home was repossessed by the Government. There is an acute water shortage and each morning Diedre has to drag herself down to line up for water. Diedre only has one leg, the other lost at the knee, and she both struggles and demands help from those around her without giving anything back while scraping by on money sent to her by her adopted daughter who now lives overseas. Diedre’s life and history are brought into the spotlight when the police come to ask her about children’s bodies found buried in the garden of her old family home. Meanwhile Diedre’s ageing, confused mother Trudy is in an old age home, imagining her son, missing since he blew up their garage (and with it Diedre).

What makes Crooked Seeds a challenging read is the amount of time readers have to spend with Diedre. While Jennings does allow readers to understand how Diedre might have ended up the way she has, she is still a spiteful, entitled, wilfully blind, grasping and curmudgeonly protagonist. Readers may well want to cheer when she is eventually called out by her neighbour. And even the shorter interludes with Trudy, who turned a blind eye to and even cooperated with the evil in her family, are hard to take.

Crooked Seeds feels at times like an analogy. Of the type of white South Africans who perpetrated violence against their countrymen but still cannot accept responsibility and of people who still feel like the world owes them some sort of free ride. Jennings sets this narrative in a crumbling landscape, filled with people on the edge, just struggling to scrape by. A landscape that has been shaped by those years of repression and the years after. All of these aspects make Crooked Seeds tough to handle emotionally but also powerfully resonant.

Robert Goodman
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed

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