Malla Nunn's experience as a filmmaker shines through her debut novel, the
first in a planned series. Her penchant for story-telling and poignant dialogue
keep the reader captivated through this suspenseful thriller. Detective Sergeant
Emmanuel Cooper is sent to investigate the murder of white policeman Captain
Pretorius in the racially divided town of Jacob's Rest, in the North-East of
South Africa (map) close to the Mozambique border. Set in 1952, just after the
institution of new apartheid laws, the story is mired in racial complexity. Nunn
explores the deep layers of tension stewing among the black, colored and
Afrikaner residents, adding to the pot Jews, Englishmen and Dutchmen as further
complicating factors to blur the line between the oppressed and the oppressors.
Detective Cooper steals our hearts from the first, and has us desperate for his triumph until the very last page. His intelligence, dry sense of humor, trustworthiness and upright morals assure us that his path is the right one. On his side is Shabalala, the native policeman and childhood friend of the murdered Captain Willem Pretorius, who exposes the reader to Zulu history and customs, adding richness to the story. Nunn is clearly very familiar with her subject, making for a novel that is equally as informative as it is riveting and controversial. Another sympathetic character is the old Jewish doctor Daniel Zweigman, enigmatic yet ultimately genuine. He, too, offers us a glimpse inside another world, with bitter tastes of his former life of abuse under the Nazi regime.
Nunn's villains are as fully developed as her protagonists. Piet and Dickie, sent from the Security Branch of the National Party to override Cooper's authority on the murder investigation, aren't strong or smart enough to thwart Cooper's efforts toward righteousness, but they certainly give him a run for his money. The Captain's hefty, muscular sons, too, wield physical dominance over Cooper, throwing many obstacles in his path.
The novel's intricately woven plot leaves no leaf unturned, so that the conclusion is believable and narratively satisfying, unlike many mystery stories in which the reader must suppress the urge to shout at the author about suspects left untried or threads left unfollowed. The ease with which Nunn ties in other cultures, including languages, solidifies the realistic nature of the book in a positive way. The foray into Mozambique provides particularly vibrant images of the scenery and inhabitants, and mouth-watering descriptions of the food.
By the book's end, readers will find themselves as deeply entwined in the characters' fates as Nunn is herself, and left to ruminate over a number of weighty debates as the tale weaves in double standards, double lives, emotional betrayal, murder, corruption and sexual deviance.
Coming Soon: Let the Dead Lie (April 2010)
The Apartheid Laws at Play in A Beautiful Place to Die
Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, Act No 55 of 1949
Prohibited marriages between white people and black or colored people of other races. Between 1946 and 1949 only 75 mixed marriages were recorded, compared with 28,000 white marriages in total.
Immorality Amendment Act, Act No 21 of 1950
Prohibited adultery, attempted adultery or related immoral acts (such as extra-marital sex) between white and black or colored people.
Population Registration Act, Act No 30 of 1950
Instituted a national register in which every individual's race was recorded. In addition, a Race Classification Board was designed in order to make the final sign-off in disputed cases.
Suppression of Communism Act, Act No 44 of 1950
Outlawed communist activity and the Community Party in South Africa.
Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act, Act No 67 of 1952
This act forced black people to carry identification with them at all times, including a photograph, place of origin, employment record, tax payments, and any encounters with the police. It was considered a criminal offense to be caught without these papers.
Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, Act No 49 of 1953
Forced racial segregation in all public amenities, buildings and transport. The goal was to limit contact between differing races, and highly favored the quality of whites' facilities over blacks' and coloreds'. The thoughts behind this law were just beginning to form when Nunn's book takes place, resulting, for example, in the separate rooms for sorting mail in the post office.
This review was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the October 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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