I picked this book up because of the focus on Australian women writers of diverse heritage that I’ve organised this month over at the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I was interested, too, that Malla had emigrated from Swaziland when she was 11, and I wanted to see what, if any, Australian influences were in her work. The novel is set in South Africa in 1952 and is distinctly South African, but as Malla comments in her guest post for the AWW Challenge, moving to Australia gave her the opportunity to become a writer.
And thank god for that, because A Beautiful Place to Die is a fantastic read. It follows Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper as he investigates the death of an Afrikaner captain. What fascinated me as I read was how the race of characters determined how much, and what, the reader could learn through Cooper (and what Cooper himself let the reader know, in a clever twist at the end). This stance is signalled in the opening page with the image of ‘a group of black farmworkers [who] stood along a rise with their backs towards [Cooper]. The hard line of their shoulders obscured what lay ahead’. The passage of information is also mirrored in the paths around the town that only black people can travel along – an aspect of South Africa that I knew nothing off. Although that’s not saying much, as even my knowledge of the circumstances of apartheid in South Africa is pretty hazy.
I was also interested in the time the novel the novel was set — not long after WWII — and the character of Zweignman. Being a Jew, he has an ambivalent status in the community, for he is white, but also German. Both he and Cooper are marked indelibly by the war, and both struggle to either escape or confront its psychological effects. I’ve read very little fiction set in the 1950s, let alone in South Africa, and the book has prompted me to broaden my reading.
If you want a page-turning and carefully-plotted story with tight, clean writing and engaging characters, this book won’t disappoint. There are another two in the series (which are currently on my eReader) but be warned – if you start, the dishes will go unwashed and the dogs unfed, and you might miss your bus stop too!
Book details: Nunn, Malla. A Beautiful Place to Die. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2008.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council/Bolinda ebook Library.
This is my 13th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.