A Beautiful Place To Die by Malla Nunn
A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn
Black & White & Murder in Apartheid South Africa
It is 1952, in South Africa near the Mozambique border, in the tiny town of Jacob’s Rest. A murdered white policeman is found in a riverbed. The novel A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn begins.
These are the early days of apartheid in South Africa. Racial segregation became an official policy following the 1948 election – inhabitants of South Africa were classified – black – white – coloured – Indian. Residential neighbourhoods were segregated – schools, hospitals and public services were segregated. It goes without saying that sexual relationships between black and white were condemned, and that people of mixed race were suddenly disenfranchised.
Detective Emmanuel Cooper has returned to South Africa after the Second World War to find his country changed, but it is the country he loves in spite of his opposition to the current political situation. He’d left the cold and rain of England where he’d lived since the end of the war and he’d come back. The trauma of the war is with him still as he makes a fresh start in the country of his birth.
Detective Cooper finds himself in charge of what looks like a straightforward murder – the dead man was a policeman, he was certain to have had enemies. So, how hard can it be to find out who hated him enough to kill him? The dead man, an Afrikaner, Captain Pretorius, was the father of a large family of boys – now young men – and appeared to be a God-fearing, upstanding citizen and husband.
As Detective Cooper finds himself investigating a more complicated case than he first realized – he also finds himself sidelined by the Security Branch. Suddenly he is off the murder case and assigned less important investigations.
But, Captain Pretorius lived a far more complicated life than it first appeared, and Detective Cooper is discovering a life that had been well hidden by the clever Captain. As all is slowly revealed, things become very dangerous for Detective Cooper. There are many who want the Captain’s secrets to remain hidden.
The reader discovers some of what it must have been like to live in South Africa at this time, through the eyes of the cast of characters in the novel. The Jewish shopkeeper, classified as “white” – a doctor – who assists people of all colour. His own past another story of racial prejudice and hate. The Zulu policeman who worked closely with Captain Pretorius and protects his secrets. The Pretorius sons – superior in their Afrikaner status and racial privilege. The black and mixed race women who work for the doctor and the white families of the region – and the children born of these unions.
The answers to the murder case are to be found by digging into the lives of these people – to pre-Apartheid relationships – bringing long buried secrets into the present day, with life altering consequences for all.
Malla Nunn was born in South Africa of a mixed race marriage. She writes “Because we were always the “in-between” people and because my family lived in the independent Kingdom of Swaziland, my relatives were drawn from different “tribes.” There was nothing cool or hip about belonging to a mixed community back then because we were always overshadowed by the belief that race mixing was somewhat shameful and dirty. My multicultural South Africa is a simple attempt to reclaim history. South Africa wasn’t just black or white: it was Indian and Italian and English and Zulu and Xhosa . . . to name a few. “
Drawing on her own experience and family history Malla Nunn has written a very good first novel – interesting historically and suspenseful – one that appears to be the beginning of a series worth following.