Source: Purchased copy
Publication: 25 May 2016 from Cassava Republic
Voinjama Johnson is a woman on the brink of a dark, downward spiral. Suffering from misfortunes past and present, all Vee has is her work as an investigative journalist to hang on to. Now her career, like her sanity, is under fire. A revenant haunts Vee’s steps – during her blackouts, the ghost of a strange teenage girl in a red woollen hat keeps reaching out to her. Desperate for answers, she and her new assistant Chlöe Bishop plunge into the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Jacqueline Paulsen.
As Vee and Chlöe enter the maze of a case full of dead ends, the life of their intrepid missing girl reveals a family at odds – a dead half-brother, an ambitious father running from his past and the two women he has loved and ruined, a clutch of siblings with lies in their midst. How could a young girl leave home to play tennis one bright Saturday and never be seen again, and what do the dysfunctional circle of people she knew have to hide? Every thread Vee pulls in Jacqueline’s tight weave of intrigue brings her closer to redemption and an unravelling more dangerous than she bargained for.
I bought this after a fantastic event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, which you can read about here. The session with H.J. Golakai, and Lilja Sigurdardottir was terrific and very funny and I knew this woman had a lot to say that I wanted to hear.
It took me a while to read this book, which was puzzling, because I really enjoyed it, but I think it’s because there’s a huge amount going on under the surface of this investigative reporter crime novel.
Voijama Johnson (Vee) is a reporter on a fashion magazine in Capetown, S.A. It’s not where she wants to be, she prefers much more hard hitting features, but she can’t afford to be picky. Vee is suffering from PTSD, though she won’t face up to the fact that she’s having serious problems. Vee is Liberian and has come through the genocide of the Liberian civil war, suffering not only food and water deprivation, physical assault and worse, but also trying desperately to avoid the serious outbreaks of infection that such a terrible conflict can inflict.
She suffers from panic attacks, blackouts and even hallucinations but tries to live her life without dealing with any of this. On top of this, her long term boyfriend, Titus, has done a runner, so she’s not the happiest woman in Capetown. But goodness she is a stand out character. Larger than life, observant, intuitive, sarcastic, intelligent and colourful, this is a protagonist for the modern era.
And that’s where Golakai’s strength lies. Her plot is a reasonably conventional one and she takes her time working through it, so there isn’t the kind of pace and tension you might expect from a crime novel. But what she does give us is vibrant and original writing. Her use of language is beautiful and her prose is really strong and effective. Alongside this we have excellent characterisation and a gentle perusing of a whole host of relevant, issues in South Africa and the wider African continent.
Vee is the embodiment of a woman who will not be put down. A street fighter; a fierce lover and someone who will always stand up for her rights, she subtly lays bare an underlying racial prejudice that relies on skin colour – dark skin, light skin, café au lait skin, white skin.
Golakai brings a host of flavours to her crime writing, making sure that women are represented in this genre and that they are sexy and funny with it, irrespective of their orientation.
Vee’s partner in crime is a young gay trainee, Chloe. Chloe is another strong role model for women in a traditionally men’s world. And when I say traditionally men’s world, Golakai deals with the all too prevalent situation where many African men take it for granted that they will have two families – one the status family, the other with the mistress.
Like I said, there’s a lot going on under the bonnet of this novel and all these social issues and more come out from this story of a missing teenage girl qand Vee’s search for the truth behind what happened. Class, poverty, refugees are all touched upon but in a light touch way that fits in well with the book and allows the reader a real glimpse into Golakai’s world.
Verdict: Smart, peppery and with a decent mystery to keep it all together, this is a fresh feminist detective story for this century. It wasn’t perfect, but the characters and the life in this book more than made up for that and I will certainly read the next one.
About H.J. Golakai
Hawa Jande Golakai is from Liberia and was born in 1979. As a result of political and economic unrest she moved around a great deal with her family and lived in many African countries, including Togo, Ghana and Zimbabwe, before coming to Cape Town as a student in 2003.
Hawa trained and worked as a medical researcher in immunology at local academic research institutions. She writes from her experiences as a refugee, foreigner, scientist and contemporary African nomad, a life which has helped foster an intense passion for crime and thriller fiction.
The Lazarus Effect is her first novel and was long-listed for the Wole Soyinka Prize for African writers and shortlisted for both the Sunday Times Literary Prize for Fiction and the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize for Creative Writing.