In the whirlwind first few pages, a gunman bursts into a swanky restaurant in Johannesburg where Julia McEwen and her abusive husband, Magnus, are dining with heavyweight politicians and mining executives. The gunman demands all the patrons give him their cellphones, wallets and jewellery, grabs Julia by the neck and escapes, using her as a human shield.
Three months later, the narrative switches to the first person in the form of DI Thabisa Tswane who is a member of the Eagles, the Serious and Violent Crimes Unit. Divisional Commissioner Matatu orders her to the Eastern Cape to investigate the serious robberies that have been sweeping the area. She tries to refuse because she had sworn never to return to Nguni Intile, the “ancient valley, to the west of Umtata”, where she grew up. She had left after the ritual punishment ordered by her grandfather, chief of the area. Apparently, her grandfather is a witness to one of the robberies but refuses to speak to anyone but her. Matatu insists she go.
As much as this is a detective story or crime novel, so is it also a story of a woman with a secret in her past, a banishment and a journey in which she is forced to confront herself and reclaim that past. Why does she have grey eyes? Why is it that she can still read the beads that record the history of the valley?
Then there is her colleague, Zak Khumalo, who does his damndest to win her over but she refuses to be just another conquest of the man she sees as a conceited playboy with a big personality, strikingly handsome though he is. Thabisa is a strong woman who is devoted to her work, fiercely independent and she does not allow him to get away with his outrageous flirting. Despite her protests, he insists on following her to Grahamstown, helps her out of a sticky situation and accompanies her on the long trek in to the valley.
Her descent into the valley is a journey back into her past. It is brought to life by evocative and sensory writing that describes the smells, the village, the people and their activities. Her grandfather greets her in the customary way, saying, “Now I see you”. I think this is a direct translation from isiXhosa, Ngoku ndiyakubona. He is very traditional and refuses to be questioned by a woman. The evidence he gives throws new light on all the previous assumptions. Thabisa is a successful police officer but her gender gets in the way. Throughout the novel, the writer exposes the frustrations a woman experiences because her gender is more important to others than are her skills. I like this aspect of the novel immensely and most women will relate to this.
The parallel story is of the two criminals that are terrorising the Eastern Cape. They are both tall and thin, dress in masks, dark coats and gloves. They seem to disappear into thin air after their hits, like “spirits into space.” This feeds into the superstitions of those who witness it. All is not as it seems as the motivation for their crimes is not for gain but for more twisted reasons than one could imagine and they are linked to some of the highest-ranking politicians in the land.
Some of the characters are a little extreme in keeping with the crime genre. Zak Khumalo and the Australian doctor vying for Thabisa’s affections are both a little good to be true. Thabisa and her grandfather are both wonderfully drawn characters, both stubborn yet with self-insight.
The action moves between Grahamstown and the rural valley just as Thabisa wrestles with her contemporary self and her roots, all the while trying to decipher the mystery surrounding the robberies. The description of the way of life in the village and certain ceremonial rites that are performed are presented in a respectful way and add wonderful colour to this novel. At the same time, it is a gripping, fast moving crime novel keeps the pages turning. I suspect we will be seeing more of DI Thabisa Tswane and I look forward to our next encounter.