Golakai’s feminist mystery turns the thriller genre on its head
It is to the credit of H.J. Golokai’s engaging, rewarding, and fun thriller that I didn’t notice until I finished that it entirely circles around strong women. The protagonist is Voinjama “Vee” Johnson, a reporter for a South African fashion magazine who survived Liberia’s horrific civil war. She can detect, she can fight, and she can keep a secret. “Vee didn’t have secrets as much as a whole other underground life.”
Her assistant, Chloe Bishop, is fearless. Her boss, Portia Kruger, has some compassion but Vee is pushing her limits. The murder victim that Vee wants wants to investigate is (was) a rebellious, strong-willed teenager, Jacqui. The list goes on. This is a feminist novel, and I love this investigative team.
Golakai repeated turns the traditional thriller on its head:
- Vee wants to investigate Jacqui’s death because Jacqui appears to her in visions. But unlike Patrick Swayze in Ghost, typing out names on keyboards, Jacqui just appears, leaving Vee to figure out the rest. “Movie ghosts introduced themselves, and then went about sprinkling helpful clues for the intrepid heroine to find. Jacqui was a lazy, taciturn diva.”
- Near the end, several characters gather so that Vee can reveal what happened, just like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot might do. But Vee tells the story so non-linearly that her friend remarks, “You’re a terrible storyteller.” (Contrast with Yaa Gyasi’s recent novel Homecoming, in which one character tells another, early in the novel, “You are a fine storyteller.” Sorry, Vee!)
- Women detectives tend to be asexual (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple) or tough-on-crime but sensitive-on-love (Robert Parker’s Sunny Randall). But Vee is “sexually frustrated” and — minor spoiler alert — ends up with two simultaneous boyfriends.
The novel’s pacing wasn’t perfect, with occasional ebbs and flows, but I still won’t miss the sequel — The Score — already out.
Other notable lines
- On gatekeepers: “The receptionist was serving the cocktail proffered by all gatekeepers: apathy and bullshit, garnished with feigned sympathy.”
- How hospitals are like children’s birthday parties: “Vee didn’t ask for much from hospitals. They were like jails and children’s birthday parties –if you got out alive, count yourself lucky.”
- On starting a new job in journalism: “Welcome aboard the Titanic. May you perish in interesting times.”
- On street food: “She adored street food –the cultural nuances, the brazen messiness and flirtation with questionable hygiene, how you needed to tuck into it with both hands. Best dining experience ever.”
- On newspapers: “If she had to follow reports of a world falling to ruin, the printed page was less depressing than live images.”
- On ambition: “The climb to the top was steep, and victors seldom made it purely on talent, resolve and integrity.”
- On good people and bad choices: “Even good people can do wrong. It happens every day. Anything is possible.”
- On running: “The days of running for fitness were over. Now she was in it solely for peace of mind and the sense of freedom.”
- On failing to respond to a cry for help: “Crime had desensitised the nation; the neighbours would fasten their locks and send her a prayer.”
- On rest: “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”
- On race and crime in South Africa: “If
any white people get hurt, everything gets so much worse.”
- Just one: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War