Crooked Seeds

A Novel

About the Book

A woman in post-apartheid South Africa confronts her family’s troubling past in this taut and daring novel about national trauma and collective guilt—from the Booker Prize–longlisted author of An Island.

“Extraordinary . . . unputdownable.”—Roddy Doyle

Cape Town, 2028. The land cracks from a years-long drought, the nearby mountains threaten to burn, and the queue for the water trucks grows ever longer.

In her crumbling corner of a public housing complex, Deidre van Deventer receives a call from the South African police. Her family home, recently reclaimed by the government, has become the scene of a criminal investigation. The remains of several bodies have just been unearthed from her land, after decades underground. Detectives pepper Deidre with questions: Was your brother a member of a pro-apartheid group in the 1990s? Is it true that he was building bombs as part of a terrorist plot?

Deidre doesn’t know the answers to the detectives’ questions. All she knows is that she was denied—repeatedly—the life she felt she deserved. Overshadowed by her brother, then left behind by her daughter after she emigrated, Deidre must watch over her aging mother and make do with government help and the fading generosity of her neighbors while the landscape around her grows more and more combustible. As alarming evidence from the investigation continues to surface, and detectives pressure her to share what she knows of her family’s disturbing past, Deidre must finally face her own shattered memories so that something better might emerge for her and her country.

In exquisitely spare prose, Karen Jennings weaves a singularly powerful novel about post-apartheid South Africa. It is an unforgettable, propulsive story of fractured families, collective guilt, the ways we become trapped in prisons of our own making, and how we can begin to break free.
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Praise for Crooked Seeds

“Jennings has summoned a rotting wraith of South Africa’s discarded apartheid culture. . . . This is a novel that dares to push us beyond disgust, beyond pity, to a point where we’re forced to touch the swollen tumor of another person’s deepest humiliation. The real artistry of Crooked Seeds lies in Jennings’s ability to make this story feel so propulsive. In a sense, Jennings has created a South African version of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. Could any person’s suffering expiate the sins of South Africa? These are questions this urgent novel forces upon us. Crooked Seeds leaves us reeling.”The Washington Post

“Karen Jennings's Crooked Seeds has a moral and psychological precision that sharpens its examination of apartheid’s legacy, and effects a bleak study, unsparing but compassionate, of a character broken by trauma.”—The Sydney Morning Herald

“[An] outstandingly good novel . . . Reminiscent of other South African writers: Gordimer, Galgut, Coetzee . . . [Jennings] has many qualities of her own, not least a very dark humour that surfaces with perfect timing. . . . This is not a ‘feel good’ book, but it did make me feel good—feel joy, in fact, at its precise pursuit of its vision, at its grown-up complexity and at the way Deidre is such a perfectly realised fictional creation.”—The Observer (UK)

“This is an extraordinary novel. It is shattering, almost unbearable, yet—so good, so clear—it is unputdownable.”—Roddy Doyle, Booker Prize–winning author of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

“Karen Jennings is a modern master of the castaway novel. Her characters are often exiled from the world—physically or psychologically, sometimes both. Crooked Seed’s Deidre and Trudy are unforgettable characters living on the margins of life. Together they make this an unsparing, yet profoundly beautiful novel.”—Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen and An Orchestra of Minorities

“Deidre’s the kind of character who gets under your skin: furious, flawed, and utterly unique. Jennings writes about broken people with unflinching honesty and deep compassion. This is a quietly devastating novel.”—Jan Carson, author of The Raptures

“The past comes back to haunt a woman whose life is deteriorating in this powerful new novel from Booker Prize–longlisted author [Karen] Jennings. . . . With evocative prose and an apocalyptic setting, Jennings brings these complicated women to life while the world around them slowly crumbles. Readers will be captivated by this compelling novel about the corrosive power of family secrets.”—Booklist

“Bleak and provocative . . . leaves readers with much to ponder about South Africa’s painful history . . . There are no easy answers in Jennings’s knotty narrative.”—Publishers Weekly
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Crooked Seeds


She woke with the thirst already upon her, still in her clothes, cold from having slept on top of the covers. Two days, three, since she had last changed; the smell of her overcast with sweat, fried food, cigarettes. Underwear’s stink strong enough that it reached her even before she moved to squat over an old plastic mixing bowl that lived beside the bed. She steadied her weight on the bed frame with one hand, the other holding on to the seat of a wooden chair that creaked as she lowered herself. She didn’t have to put the light on, knew by the burn and smell that the urine was dark, dark as cough syrup, as sickness.

There was no toilet paper, so she rose without wiping, pulling the underwear back into place, feeling it dampen a little. Usually she would reach across, open the window, empty the bowl over the rockery that lined that part of the building’s wall, but there had been complaints, a warning. Instead, she took a T-shirt that was lying on the floor and covered the mouth of the bowl with it, before sitting down on the chair. In sleep, the plate of her top front teeth had come loose, protruding a little over her lips. Impossible with her dry mouth to push it back into place. She pulled, snagging it on cracked skin, causing her to switch on the lamp, to feel for blood with her fingertips. None. Then put the teeth on the bedside table next to a mug from which the tea had long since evaporated.

She shifted her leg, lazy to reach for crutches where she had dropped them the night before. It was no distance from the chair to the place described as a kitchen, with its bar fridge, sink, counter, and microwave. She took hold of the chairback, the chest of drawers, the TV stand, the various items that she had refused to give up and which she had crammed into this room, making her way slowly across to the fridge. She did not bother to move onwards to the sink, knowing that the taps would be empty. The microwave clock read 05:18. Forty minutes before the water truck came. Nothing until then.

Inside the fridge was a packet of discolored Vienna sausages, opened a week ago; half a tub of margarine; a jar of gherkins. She unscrewed the lid of the jar, drank down the brine, closing her mouth against its solids, then reached for a Vienna to blunt the sting, its puckered ends like plastic. She spat out what couldn’t be chewed, ate two more, spat again, then drew her forearm across her mouth, seeing afterward the smear of grit and slime, and flakes of hideous pink.

The morning’s chill reached her as she approached the front entrance of the building. She thought about going back for a jacket, but went on, greeting the security guard as he came across from his hut to open the door for her. “Hey, Winston, here we go again.”

“That’s right, that’s it. Same again.”

She could see the queue from where they stood. It ran three blocks deep, extended around the corner. Two armed guards patrolled the outer edges, one more stood near the water truck and collection point. Beyond the truck, a traffic officer had parked his car, the lights flashing hotly in the morning gloom. He had put out cones, was directing the few vehicles that passed by. Passengers and drivers looked out at the queue, at the people with their array of containers, in dressing gowns and slippers, wearing jackets and coats over their work clothes and school uniforms, a few wrapped in blankets against the cold. Someone was listening to the news on a cellphone, elsewhere music was playing. Most were using earphones though, intent on something beyond this slow, shifting wait. Few were interested in conversation.

“How’s it looking today?” she said.

“Nothing special. Same as always. I didn’t see you yesterday, you okay?”

“Ja, just wasn’t in the mood for all this shit.”

He nodded. “Ja, I know what you mean.”

She eyed the queue, saw a woman with a teenage daughter, the girl’s arms crossed, the mother’s too. They wore headscarves and long skirts. Behind them stood a man with his son and daughter. The man tapped his foot, leaned forward, and said something to the scarved woman. She shook her head, then took out her phone and showed him something on it, the light from the screen highlighting the darkness beneath her eyes. The man frowned, rubbed hard at his jaw in irritation.

Deidre had already taken a few steps toward the queue, but she came back now, said to Winston, “Give us a ciggy, hey? I’ll get you back later.”

“When’s later? I’m still waiting from last week and last month. Eish man, I’m still waiting from last year.” But he took one from his pocket, lit it, handed it across.

She coughed wetly as she inhaled, then spat the wet out. “Ag, man, don’t be like that. One day I’m going to bring you a whole pack, okay? Like a whole pack, and not just any kind. It’ll be the good kind, you’ll see.”

“Ja, I’m waiting . . .”

She blew him a kiss, adjusted the backpack that she wore slung over one shoulder—an old thing from her daughter’s high school years, tearing a little at the seams. “Bye, darling, let me get this over and done with.”

A dull sunrise held back beyond the streetlamps and she crutched toward it, into the road, ignoring the cone markers so that cars had to stop for her, three in a row. She kept her eyes on the water truck, did not acknowledge the cars, did not look at the queue. She went deliberately slowly, pausing every few steps to remove the cigarette from her mouth, to exhale, inhale again. Before leaving her room she had brushed her hair; applied makeup over the previous day’s smudges; sprayed her armpits, crotch, and hair; licked toothpaste from her finger; reinserted her plate. She wore now a skirt that came to mid-thigh, showing the blanched scar at her stump, and a T-shirt of cheap black lace that revealed a purple bra, her breasts high and hard.

She tossed the cigarette end at the gutter, moved toward the trestle table at the front of the queue, where two water monitors were taking turns to fill containers from a tap in the truck’s side.

“Hey, lady,” someone called, “there’s a line here, you know. Go to the back!”

She made no sign that she had heard, beckoned instead to the armed guard. “A little help, please.”

“Sure, ma’am.” He was young, his uniform still new, shoes stiff and bright, so that his steps toward her were wide-legged, heavy.

“Oh darling,” she smiled and shifted the backpack from her shoulder “just call me Deidre.”

He returned the smile, removed an empty three-liter Coke bottle from her backpack. “Well, Deidre, can I have your ID, please?”

She put her hand in her pocket, slowly pulling the skirt downwards to reveal part of her belly, and took out her card. “Here you go, darling, but don’t look at it. The photo’s so bad.”

“Oh, come on, you look great! Really, it’s a good picture, I’m telling you.” Then, “Hold on a sec. I’ll be right back with your water, okay?”

“Sure, sure, take your time.”

But almost at once she began tapping her fingers on the crutch handles, her throat dry and wanting. She glanced across at the queue, hoping to catch an eye, to ask if someone had a cigarette, but no one looked at her. Nothing else to see in the dawn other than rooftops starting to appear slowly, a series of them, going back and back into the gray light, each straddling something dark and stillborn—the empty rooms of empty homes. So many people had left. Yet even in the ones that were inhabited, there was only darkness. Everyone was here now, in this queue. There was no other life.

At her foot a small stream of water was starting to pool. Deidre moved, let the water pass, looking back up along its damp path to the truck, where one of the monitors was picking up a container that had fallen. Both monitors were wet across their bellies and thighs, both frowning as they went between the trestle table and the tap. The woman was filling Deidre’s bottle now, handing it back to the guard, then turned to the next in line, a young man dressed in a suit and tie. He had an ID in each hand, held them out to the woman, began to speak.

Behind Deidre a car drove slowly past, its undercarriage low, scraping across a speed bump. People winced at the sound, glanced with caution at the driver and his passengers, with their arms slung casually from the windows, skin blue with homemade tattoos. Deidre glared at them, wanted to call out and ask what they were looking at, but she knew what they were and what they could do. She glanced away, counted the guards, turned to look at Winston, checked if he had a gun, knowing that he didn’t. Yet even if he had, even then it would have made no difference. So, she waited, watched the car with lowered eyes, seeing it begin to speed up, drive on.

When she turned back toward the truck, the man at the front of the queue had raised his voice. “You see, she’s sick. She can’t come.” Then, to a question, “Yes, my mother, she’s my mother.”

About the Author

Karen Jennings
Karen Jennings is a South African writer whose novel An Island was longlisted for the Booker Prize. She lives in Cape Town. More by Karen Jennings
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