A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn.
A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn. NY: Washington Square Press, 2009. paperback, 375 pages.
A wonderful mystery novel set in South Africa in the 1950s and exploring the sometime ambiguous relationships between the races
Although she now lives in Australia, Malla Nunn grew up in Swaziland, on the border between South Africa and Mozambique, and sets her story there that the time when strict segregation of white and black is being legislated. The story takes place in a small town across the river from Mozambique where an Afrikaner police captain has been murdered. Her detective, Emanuel Cooper, is English, and works for the national police force. Although white, he distances himself from the more racist Afrikaners in the town and from the Security Bureau, an “intelligence” branch of the government bent on discovering Communists. Then he finds himself under attack from both of them. As he seeks to discover who killed the highly respected police captain, we see the line between black and white being crossed in surprising ways. Mixed race “coloreds” play key roles in the novel, as does a Jewish doctor hiding in the town.
The story is full of complexity and suspense, but it is not your typical genre mystery. Even those who usually shun mysteries will enjoy this exploration of how people react when rigid color lines are supposed to divide them. Nunn’s characters are surprising, but believable, individuals who reveal both love and cruelty within themselves. They don’t always make the choices we would prefer, but ones which make sense within the limitations of their lives. Nunn also writes powerfully about a place she obviously loves. The veldt is ever-present in the book, and the mountain cliff is an actor in the drama. She believes in justice, but wisely realizes that the good doesn’t always triumph.
I found this book through an article by Nunn on The Huffington Post. In it she writes about her own initial discomfort at having used the stories of her family and ancestors to write a mystery rather than writing a novel that would change the world, or at least make life better for Africans. She gradually changes her mind, however.
Africa is still a mess. No matter how many books I write about her, I will never have the power to fix her. I’m not immune to the human misery unfolding in Libya or Somalia or, most especially, Swaziland, my spiritual home, the country with the highest AIDS infection rate on Earth. I can no longer judge my own writing in terms of its ability to save Africa. Instead, I can invite readers into an exquisite, wild part of the world where exciting things happen. I can tell stories where despite the obstacles, people fight for each [other] and for justice. Now, when I stand on a craggy mountainside high above a river in Swaziland (whether I’m really there or just in my imagination) I feel no shame, just the deepest kind of love.
In A Beautiful Place to Die, Nunn has written a story that is about “an exquisite, wild part of the world where exciting things happen.” She can be proud of her accomplishment.
I gladly recommend this book to everyone, including those put off by mysteries. This is one of those unique books by a woman of color that can be read for sheer pleasure.