I am on a racism roll since the past two weeks. Don’t get me wrong. Last week, I finished reading Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, the day before yesterday I saw the movie American History X, and today I wrapped up The Monster’s Daughter by Michelle Pretorius, a racing historical thriller. All of them were wonderfully wrought, highlighting the pains and wrecks of racism in their own unique ways. But The Monster’s Daughter is slightly different in that it’s set in South Africa, a land we don’t often come across in books. A big thank you to TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to review this book!
Racism is a delicate subject. More so in our modern times with layers of implications and political correctness being continually added to it. Michelle Pretorius, however, tackles the subject head on. Fearlessly. Her candid, open writing traces South Africa’s historical clashes with race. There are three segments to the book – human genetic experiments, racism and Apartheid, and a murder investigation case that brings all aspects together. It begins in the present day with the murder case, moving back and forth in time until things begin to converge.
Set in a (fictional?) little town called Unie, where everyone knows everyone, the murder investigation is not an easy task. Unlike glitzy, and more modern Johannesburg, Unie is made up of farmers. Whites and blacks co-exist in an uneasy atmosphere. This is where Alet, the young, feisty cop is called in to investigate a murder.
“Alet’s stomach turned when she saw it. The body lay curled in a fetal position, the hands balled into fists in front of the face, like a boxer readying for a fight. It had been burnt, the flesh so charred that it looked as if the slightest breeze might lift the ashes into the air and destroy its integrity.”
With such a riveting introduction to the incident, which occurs in 2010, we are soon whisked back over a century to the Boer War. Over the course of time, we meet Adriaan, Benjamin, Tessa, and a host of other characters who all play important roles. Initially, I found these sudden timeline changes a bit jarring and the mingling of characters a little difficult to keep track of. But as the threads begin to emerge it becomes easier to tie them together.
I enjoyed reading the absolutely authentic and “local” descriptions of South African life. From crimes called necklacing where a tire is filled with petrol, placed around a person’s neck and set afire, to beliefs like raising beds on bricks so that evil spirits don’t attack, to deeper issues like corruption and racial hatred, they are all explored from an insider’s view. I loved this because I felt like I was not skimming the surface of a culture. We get to see the really ugly bits of a nation, which make up the truth more than anything else. This was enhanced by the interspersing of Afrikaans with the English. But sometimes I found it distracting because I felt there were too many foreign words, which I couldn’t place even with the context. This would take away the effect of the situation away a little bit in places and it left me unsatisfied. Here are some examples –
‘“I came back to the platteland to get away from that stuff.”’
‘He ran his gloved hand along the large intestine, like he was stuffing boerewors.’
See what I mean? It’s difficult to deduce what exactly they are talking about. Maybe, this is the way people speak in South Africa; a lot of the local language words intermingled easily with English, just like it is in India.
I also found the characterization sagging at times. Some like Benjamin were reasonably well-sketched but some of the main characters like Alet were just not engaging enough. Sure, we know her background but what did she think or feel?
These things apart, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. Yes, at times it got a bit too busy with its multiple themes but it is also a large window to South Africa’s troubled past, and thanks to Pretorius’ writing, which is descriptive and lucid, makes it easier to visualize. I am definitely keeping an eye out for her next.
Verdict: Tense thriller
Image courtesy – Amazon