This is the debut novel of Malla Nunn and a wonderful and gripping novel it is. Set in South Africa in 1952 the novel is at one level a complex murder mystery. The captain of the local police force in a small town deep in the countryside has just been found murdered, with little in the way of clues. Captain Willem Pretorius is not only the local police chief, but an Afrikaner (known as Dutchmen in the novel) and the head of the most powerful family in the area. Into this sensitive case stumbles detective Emmanuel Cooper, an “English” South African, sent down from Jo’burg to investigate. He doesn’t get very far as almost immediately the case is taken over by the Security Branch. Cooper is relegated to investigating an apparently unrelated case about an alleged “molester” who has been terrorising some of the women from the Coloured community.
The reason for this relegation becomes immediately clear. The Security Branch thugs have decided that the culprit is to be a black Communist agent and are determined to find a suitable victim. This leads the novel into another and altogether darker level of intrigue and fear. For in 1952 the new National government in Pretoria has been in power for four years and is busy remodelling the whole country along apartheid lines. Any contact between the main racial groups, whites, coloureds and blacks has become illegal outwith strictly work related encounters. In particular any kind of social or even worse, sexual contact was brutally punished. As the two investigations proceed, in particular Cooper’s pursuit of the molester, Malla Nunn is able to expose the deep secrets and tensions in this newly emerging apartheid South Africa. Not just between white, coloured and black, but within the ruling white family. The novel brings to the fore the deep hatred between the Dutch and English South Africans.
Detective Cooper is the main protagonist and the novel is written from his perspective. He is himself a distinctly complex character with his own ghosts to confront. But he is an honourable man and determined in his own way to ensure that justice is done. In the course of his investigations he comes across all kinds of people and all with something to hide. This new South Africa is a pretty fearful place in which to live. It is interesting that the most fully developed characters are all, with a couple of exceptions, white. These include the Security Branch thugs, the unsavoury members of the Pretorius clan, the English King family and the mysterious Old Jew. Coloureds appear frequently in the novel, but few are developed in any detail. The really fascinating facet is that only one black character has a prominent role in the novel. This is constable Shabalala, Zulu policeman and friend of Captain Pretorius. Shabalala, however is a very significant character as the story develops, yet we really find out very little about the man himself. Perhaps this in itself is a reflection of the hierarchy of races in South Africa in 1952.
Malla Nunn is herself an interesting writer. She was born in Swaziland, but her family left South Africa while she was young. She now lives and works in Australia, where she is regarded as an Australian writer. Which is why I choose this novel – it is part of my Australian women writers challenge. Despite this provenance, the novel is all about South Africa and offers us a fascinating insight into the tensions and complexities of life there in the early years of apartheid. Very highly recommended. Malla Nunn has since written a second novel to feature detective Emmanuel Cooper. It is now on my to read list.