“I am a fucking cripple.” Deidre van Deventer – White, 53 years old, a resident of Cape Town that is borderline dystopian – says this dejectedly to Miriam, her Coloured neighbour, as she is trying to help Deidre.

Deidre lost a leg at the age of 18 in an accident which, undoubtedly, shaped the rest of her life. But, as we see in Crooked Seeds, the new novel by the Booker Prize-longlisted South African writer, Karen Jennings, even the events leading up to that accident had shaped Deidre’s life till then.

There was her position as a girl child, the second-born in her White family, the firstborn being a boy: her brother, Ross. Growing up in the Apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s and the 1990s, it was clear to Deidre that she was not entitled to most of the things which were so freely available to her brother. While her brother went to a supposedly better school far away from their home, with their parents taking turns to drop and pick him up, Deidre was sent to a school close by to which she “just walked”.

When she gets an upgrade in the form of attending her brother’s school, the reason does not concern Deidre’s education at all. Her brother had failed grade eight and “had to stay back a year”, and Deidre was sent to his school – where she was “in the same class, [sat] next to him” – just to “look after him” even though Ross was a year older than Deidre. Further, Deidre was not allowed to have a boyfriend as the said boyfriend “was lower class”. On the other hand, Ross was indulged by their mother even as Deirdre was unable to finish high school and left to mother a Black baby named Monica.

The year of the drought

When the novel opens, it is the year 2028. Cape Town has been ravaged by “a years-long drought”, about which newspapers carry the headline: NO RAIN EXPERTS SAY. The water crisis is such that it is easy to buy bottle after bottle of Coke and cartons of wine and milk from the shops, but water has to be rationed with armed guards and traffic officers patrolling the places where watertrucks stop to supply water to the citizens.

Deidre’s father is long dead; Ross has been missing for thirty years; Monica – an adult and married – has emigrated to the UK as “[South Africa] was going to shit” and “she [had] made up her mind to leave for a place with a future”; and Deidre and her mother, Trudy, have been evicted by the government from their family home on Protea Street as the government had found aquifers in the ground there. Trudy, having “lost her mind”, was put up at a facility for the elderly; while Deidre – along with her friend, Miriam – was allotted quarters in a government tenement.

Deidre lives in a state of indignation, under the shadow of the trauma from her youth, not bothering to clean up, chain-smoking and drinking. The evocative way in which Jennings describes her heroine’s struggle to live each day, totally dependent upon Miriam; the security guard of the tenement, Winston; and her other friends, is the strength of this novel. The language is so sparse that it hurts. When Jennings writes about Deidre’s struggle to get out of her bed to urinate or when Deidre picks up cigarette stubs from the dirt to smoke, that agony and addiction can be felt.

When Deidre proclaims to Miriam that she is “a fucking cripple”, the two women are having an argument on who to vote for or vote at all in the upcoming elections – perhaps the most memorable part of Jennings’ novel. “You’re Coloured so voting actually means something to you and your people because you were kept from it for all those years…The government doesn’t care about me, so why waste my time on it?” Deidre tells Miriam; and Miriam counters it with, “You fucking live off a disability grant. You don’t think that involves the government caring for you?”

The discovery of human remains from the year 1994 – when South Africa had their first general elections in which all the citizens irrespective of their race could vote – from beneath the van Deventers’ property on Protea Street drives Deidre to, for once, get her life together and find out what happened three decades ago.

With images of a waterless world just four years from now, Crooked Seeds is a cautionary novel. It is also a political one that seeks to find closure for the injustices that have happened. But, above all, it is a moving and engrossing work which takes the reader in its grip and does not let go till the last word has been read.

Crooked Seeds, Karen Jennings, Picador India.