Karen is best known for her debut novel, For the Mercy of Water (Penguin SA), which recently won the Sunday Times Literary Award for Fiction. The award is given for a “work of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured and a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark in contemporary fiction”.
Set in an anonymous, drought-stricken country where places and characters transcend geographic or cultural labelling, water becomes the currency of power, and fuel of corruption, and a strong metaphor for the protagonist’s psychological and spiritual awakening. Dealing with issues of gender violence, environmental threat and water scarcity, the novel follows a young writer as she follows the trail of a story into the broken heart of her country, and into herself.
UCT Professor of English Literature Dr Konstantin Sofianos wrote in the Sunday Independent http://sundayindybooks.blogspot.com/2013/03/sa-evoked-through-rural-battle-for.html that the book “is a strange, challenging novel, and a revelation. It makes much post-apartheid literature look banal, in its concerns, and amateurish, in execution.”
“For the Mercy of Water has roots that stretch deep into South African literature,” writes Sofianos.“Its apocalyptic suggestion of country landscapes given over to violence recall the rural-dystopian fictions of Schoeman, Coetzee or Gordimer, while the tense city-action reminds one of Brink’s apartheid thrillers. The nature descriptions and prison scenes resonate with the literary past, while the disjointed parables in which Mother knowingly offers her testimony are as vivid and perplexing as any of Schreiner’s Dreams, or an old, old, folk tale.
“But there can be no doubt, finally, that Jayes’s is a South African vision, and a contemporary one…. A society that has lived through the Marikana massacre and the slaughter of Anene Booysens should recognise something in both Jayes’s projection of rural districts subordinated to corporate imperatives, and in the repeated depictions of gender violence and rape, never lurid but clear eyed, or be ashamed.”
Outgoing Sunday Times book editor Tymon Smith commended the novel: “Karen Jayes’ startling, engaging and sophisticated novel was commended by the judges for its original and universal examination of an increasingly important issue in a manner which places South African writing firmly on the global literary map.”
Karen was awarded the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award in 2009. She has worked as an editor and writer for a number of magazines and newspapers in South Africa and London. She currently lives in Cape Town with her two children. ‘For the Mercy of Water’ was also shortlisted for M-Net’s Debut Award.