This is a secret society with a difference. Unlike the usual male only societies, such as the Broederbond and Freemasons, this is a female only secret society. It was formed by three women at a time when they felt overwhelmingly helpless and at their wits end. Each of them was abused, dominated and diminished by their husbands and could see no other way out but to kill them or have them killed.
Talullah Ntuli, Edna Whithead and Nkosazana Khumalo are so empowered by their victory and freedom that they form the Black Widow Society. They are black widows who identify with the black widow spider that feeds on its mate. They look out for women who show the tell-tale signs of abuse and help them get rid of their husbands but still inherit their wealth. The organization has strict rules; members are forbidden to associate outside of the annual meeting; the only time they meet. The society has become profitable enough to create a fund that assists young women in need. Nkosazana looks after the financial side and is reluctant to help women without potential wealth but Tallullah insists that it is not only about the money. Cracks are beginning to show as 15 years of plotting to kill men have taken their toll and all three women are very different characters; no longer the broken beings they once were.
The lives and woes of various different characters intersect and these different threads create a compelling narrative. Janine Myburg (previously Magda Viljoen) works as a paralegal for Alex, a sleazy lawyer. This is a step up from her previous job as a stripper. She is desperate to find an old wealthy man and knows Alex can be the one to help her. It turns out she is an old childhood friend of Marie, the Afrikaans girlfriend of Mzwakhe Khuzwayo, the hitman for BWS. He is at the beck and call of the triumvirate but has notions of getting out. He has become shocked at their ruthlessness but they will never allow him to leave them.
Then there is Thami Mthembu who suspects husband Lloyd of cheating on her. He reassures her that all is fine on their fourth wedding anniversary but two weeks later, he arranges for divorce papers to be served on her while he is out of the country on business. She realizes too late that he had been after her wealth but now that he has used her connections to forge a name for himself, he discards her. She feels embittered and angry. Will she become a new member of the Black Widow Society?
An interesting aspect of the novel is the social commentary that emerges through the relationships between the characters. Mzwakhe’s relationship with his white girlfriend means his mother rejects him and refuses to see him again. They have a warm, intimate relationship but when her twin sister appears, things begin to go awry. Janine, who is a schemer and happy to manipulate anyone for money, develops another side to her character. Thami is more interested in the latest fashion and is a superficial, frivolous character. The variety of personalities add colour and variety.
The premise of the novel is an intriguing one. Is it justified to kill in certain situations or could they have found another way to help women extricate themselves from abusive situations? Over time the lines become less clear and corruption of the original ideals is inevitable. It reminds me of a movie called The Last Supper in which a group of friends decide that if a person is immoral then they are justified in killing them. When they hear of such a person they invite them to dinner and murder them. In time, the killing becomes more of a drug to them and their original morality is corrupted.
In true crime fiction style, there are many twists and turns; misunderstandings that lead to tragedy; blackmail and skullduggery. The writer is not afraid to allow matters to end badly, adding a touch of realism to this pacy, inventive novel.