A house robbery “gone bad” is sadly not an uncommon occurrence in South Africa, in reality or in fiction. The one with which NR Brodie’s debut thriller Knucklebone opens seems routine enough: two young men try to break into a home in Johannesburg; one escapes but is eventually caught, the other one is shot dead by the owner. But here, nothing is at it appears.
Old colleagues, Ian Jack and Reshma Patel, meet on the scene of the crime. Ian is a former police officer who now lectures at the university and is present because he’d accompanied the armed response team on their call for his research. Reshma is investigating the case.
It all looks simple in the beginning, but then there is something unusual about the shot wound of the victim, and the strangely unperturbed woman who killed him is definitely not who she claims to be. Born in Romania, Eva Lecca runs a thriving enterprise as a taxidermist, but it soon transpires that she has lethal secrets to hide. Did she fire her gun in self-defence or did she have a completely different motive? “Eva stepped closer to him, her shadow making a grotesque short shape against the wall. Ian pressed his back against the brick, trapped between the building and the woman. His mouth was dry. He couldn’t understand why, but every nerve in his body screamed danger.”
When unexpectedly the apprehended robber, Njabulo, has a diabetic fit in the interrogation room, collapses and ends up in a hospital, things go from strange to otherworldly and then to outright scary. It becomes clear that there are other thieves involved who deal not only in house break-ins, but also animal poaching and trafficking. Soul kidnappings or demon possessions are also not beyond them.
A monkey’s paw leads Ian and Reshma to a much more gruesome find in a hidden warehouse. A collection of one-cent copper coins are found during an autopsy. Demons are on the loose. And a friend goes mysteriously missing. Reshma and Ian do not really know what or who they are dealing with and they have to keep their minds open to face the eerie challenges of this case. They seek the help of a sangoma and a coven of witches to understand and survive the forces they are trying to bring to justice.
Ian has a personal history with Reshma and encountering her again brings back memories of their failure at a relationship while they were still working together in the past. His hope for another chance is rekindled when she responds positively to his invitation to dinner, but is her returned interest real or is she under the influence of some sinister power?
Knucklebone is set in an African metropolis where people from all over the world live and practice their rich and intriguing beliefs. Brodie brings them seamlessly into the story. Reshma finds out about a “Witchcraft Indaba” – “Africa’s first multi-national conference dedicated to sharing knowledge and information about magickal [referring to real magick] practices around the continent!” – and gets in touch with the organisers to help her solve the uncanny puzzle of her case. Ian does not know what to believe when he witnesses an exorcism – which is one of the best scenes of the novel, Brodie’s descriptions making you want to scream and run and simultaneously keep you glued to the page:
“Njabulo arched his neck, his mouth falling open in a wide grimace. He started breathing harder, his breath coming in laboured pants. His features were so swollen that it was hard to make out any expression on his face.
“Ian was about to ask if he should get help when he saw something.
“A fingertip emerged from the inside of the boy’s mouth.
“Then it was joined by another, waving from the cavity between his teeth. The two fingers, edged with blackened nails, curled around the outside of Njabulo’s lips.”
When Ian questions what he saw, the sangoma performing the ritual, MaRejoice, tells him: “Everything is real, Mr Jack. It all depends on what you want to see”. I don’t believe in witchcraft, but I find the way Brodie writes about it and weaves it into her storyline fascinating and wonderfully convincing. You see magic or spiritual and religious practices at work through the eyes of her characters and even though you might not think any of it possible, it seems quite real in the most ordinary way within the context of the narrative. While reading, I often found myself thinking of The X-Files UFO poster displayed in Agent Mulder’s office, stating: “I want to believe.”
Brodie is an established journalist and the author of five successful non-fiction books, among them one about the Mother City and one about Joburg – its history, places of interest and people. It is thus no surprise that the Joburg of Knucklebone is as vividly portrayed as its striking characters: “The eastern part of town had once been the heart of the city’s garment district. Now it was a mix of semi-abandoned industrial buildings and offices as it bled from City and Suburban into Jeppestown and Troyeville. The noise from the highway rumbled down through concrete, to where the traditional Mai Mai market carried on its business just a few blocks away from the new hipster cool of the Maboneng precinct.”
Brodie’s crisp writing, her short chapters which often end in nail-biting cliff hangers and a great plotline drive the narrative along. She brings all its strands together in a stunning magical finale which I found highly satisfying.
This is Brodie’s first foray into the thriller genre. Her take on it is very refreshing. I don’t read thrillers often, and I am usually not too keen on fantasy either, but I found Knucklebone’s pace and imaginative prowess invigorating and could not put the book down. A sequel is something to be wished for.
by NR Brodie
Review first published in the Cape Times on 16 February 2018.