MICHELLE PRETORIUS (above) is a South African writer who was born in Bloemfontein. She currently lives and works in Ohio. The Monster’s Daughter is her first novel.
Alet Berg has an uphill struggle to establish her credibility as a constable in the South African Police Service. Firstly, she is a woman, and the attitude of Alet’s male colleagues is no better than that of a dozen other police forces across the world. Secondly, she is smart and well educated, but has done herself few favours at the start of her career, and has been sent to the small town of Unie to redeem herself. Thirdly, and most troubling, she is the daughter of Adriaan Berg, a legendary strong man in the force from back in the days of apartheid and the struggle between the ANC and the white government.
Alet is called to a suspicious death out on the hill-top farm of a man called Terblanche. The corpse has been burned beyond recognition, and it is not clear if it is that of a man or a woman. Her partner is the inscrutable and rather prim Sergeant Mathebe, but neither of them can make – literally – head nor tail of the body, and it is removed to the morgue to await an autopsy.
Subsequently, Alet becomes involved in another sinister incident. While driving home one night, she pulls over to find a woman, near death, in a roadside pull-off. While tending to the woman, Alet is disturbed by a man who then attempts steals her car, but his escape is halted by Alet drawing her weapon and shooting at the car. The man, a petty criminal, is duly arrested, but there is no evidence to connect him to the injured woman, and Alet is suspended from duty pending further investigations.
By this time in the novel, you will have had one or two diversions from the more-or-less present day (2010). The Boer War and its aftermath clearly play an important part in the narrative, and we look on queasily as a number of teenagers from the Afrikaans population are taken from their families and used in some kind of genetic experiments by an English doctor. As the century grows older two children, Tessa and Ben, who are the results of these experiments, strike up a relationship, but they then go their different ways.
To say any more about how these apparently disparate story strands merge together would be irresponsible, both to the author and to you, the reader. Suffice to say that Michelle Pretorius takes a breathtaking risk in her plot. As experienced readers, both you and I will have read novels where such risks are taken but backfire spectacularly. This time, however, as Alet closes in on the truth about the lonely death on Terblanche’s hill farm, you will only be a couple of steps ahead of her, and her growing incredulity and ultimate acceptance of an astonishing truth is superbly described.
The tensions and contradictions of Modern South Africa are described in an unflinching fashion, but without preaching or moralising. The account of the country’s troubled past is secure and convincing. It is barely credible that this is a debut novel. The writing is spectacularly good; compassionate, evocative of time and place and, above all, totally credible. It is this which makes the author’s gamble pay off – in brilliant fashion. You may also realise, by the last page, that there is a telling ambiguity in the book’s title. If it is intentional, it is very, very clever. If it is mere chance, then it still works beautifully.
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