True Murder, by Yaba Badoe.
True Murder, by Yaba Badoe. London : Jonathan Cape, 2009.
A thrilling novel about an African girl and her best friend attending an English boarding school and their exploration of a world they can neither understand nor control.
The narrator of this novel is Ajuba, a young woman in her twenties from Ghana, who is trying to deal with the events that occurred a decade earlier. What happened had affected her deeply. This is a novel about her childhood, but not a children’s or young adult novel. Ajuba brings her adult thinking to the telling of her story. She knows the psychological jargon that removes all guilt from her, but the hatred she felt resulted in “an act of devastating violence that I deeply regret.” Her story is a complex and chilling psychological narrative, and as Ajuba warns us at the beginning, not one with a happy ending. Excellent writing keeps it from ever being dreary or macabre.
Ajuba was twelve when her father brought her to a boarding school in England where she develops a close friendship with Polly, an English girl whose family is renovating an old country house nearby. Thrilled to be included in their activities, Ajuba spent much time with the family. At first they seemed to be perfect to her, but the conflict that developed between the parents brought back Ajuba’s memories of her own parents, memories that she is trying to deny and forget. She knew about how “errant fathers unable to take responsibility for disintegrating wives, pass their burdens on to their daughters.” The tension in Polly’s family is heightened by the girls’ discovery of human bones in the attic of the house. They become obsessed with their investigation into who had been murdered and why. Avidly reading about “true murder,” they create a game of investigation that “as much about making us fearful as about easing our fear.” As the family conflict intensifies, Ajuba has dreams and visions which blur her sense of what is real, but no one listens to her warnings. She becomes “a fly caught between mother and daughter in their web.”
Yaba Badoe was born in Ghana and, like Ajuba, attended an English boarding school. Working in both Africa and Great Britain, she has been a journalist for BBC and is a filmmaker. Her film about women in Ghana exiled from their villages as witches has won various prizes. She has also written about African women in film in a journal called Feminist Africa. [ I found this journal fascinating and want to explore it further.]
On the surface, True Murder seems unconnected with Africa. Some of Ajuba’s perspectives are rooted in her African world, but she was raised in what seems to have been a westernized family and was protected from racist discrimination in England. Badoe makes clear, however, that her being African is critical to the story. Although the book is sometimes called a mystery novel or a coming of age story, she describes her novel as
a psychological thriller in the Gothic mystery tradition. A nervous heroine determined to resolve a mystery as it unfolds in the English countryside is the stock in trade of Gothic melodrama. However, once the heroine is an African, another layer is added which I hope enriches the genre, making it very much of today.
Badoe also identifies the intense adolescent friendship between Ajuba and Polly with its “ambivalence and attraction” as the central theme of the book. Other themes concern family relationships, especially mother-daughter relations, and the powerlessness of adolescent girls.
I highly recommend True Murder to a variety of readers. Badoe writes with power and urgency. This is a hard book to put down, but it is also one that grips the emotions and engages the mind.