Friday, 31 October 2008

True Murder - Yaba Badoe

True Murder is an enthralling debut which cracks and fizzes with an atmosphere of childhood. It is tense, excitable, fantastical, and all the time given to misconception, exaggeration, and drama. Ajuba is a young Ghanaian girl just starting out at an English boarding school. Her childhood has been fraught with chaos: her father’s promiscuity, the breakdown of her parents marriage, her mothers growing paranoia, escape from Ghana to London, her mother’s drug overdose. And now, having called the ambulance and saved her mother, Ajuba has been whisked away to live at a boarding school. It’s a lot for one child to go through.

Yet boarding school promises to offer her a period of normality. There are other girls her age, and she is a good student. But when Polly Venus, a Generation X preteen, full of attitude and bravado, arrives at the school, things become a whole lot more interesting. Soon Ajuba fallen under Polly’s spell and the two become inseparable. And when Polly invites Ajuba to come home with her for the weekend, Ajuba is delighted to find that the Venus’s are every bit as exuberant and passionate as their daughter. Soon she is spending all her time there, as though they are her surrogate family, so much more fun and loving than her real family.

But when the girls are playing in the attic one day, they find some bones wrapped in an old coat. Thinking they are those of a dead kitten, they call the RSPCA, only to be told that the bones are actually those of a baby. Already obsessed with the detectives of an American magazine serial True Murder, and with their wild imaginations in overdrive, the girls set out to unravel the mystery and solve the crime. But things are not as they seem; there are fault lines appearing in Venus household, Ajuba is troubled by her mothers absence, and the detective games are digging up mysteries that are better left unknown. As the summer draws to a close, all three mysteries come together, with tragic results.

Yaba Baoe is a consummate storyteller: the pace and guile with which she delivers this tragic tale of childhood fantasy gone wrong draws you in and surrounds your every sense. Already a successful filmmaker, Baoe writes with a cinematic eye for tension, and a full pallet of visual imagery. The characters come alive before you; with every turn of the page you anticipate something good, and get something better. And all the while, the tension is growing hotter. Something is about to snap…

True Murder is simply written, plot-based and enticing. It occupies that fine line between exciting and lyrical literary fiction, and mainstream popularity. I am not a big fan of childhood recollection fiction, but this is so well written and characterised that it is a sheer pleasure to read. It may not quite have the astounding gothic background or literary genius of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but there is something similar here. The prose is thick, it enfolds you in the action, you forget where you are and find time has passed without your notice.

Ajuba is a sympathetic, intriguing, and likable narrator and her friendship with double act with Polly completely steals the show. Yet there are another four or five very strong characters in their own rights, who think interesting and diverse thoughts, and who have their own issues and worries which they are trying to work out for themselves. At every point I felt present and a part of the action. In vacillating between a very English setting of the school and Ajuba’s magical, colourful, and exotic Ghanaian background, the reader feels her cross-cultural confusion. This is a novel of cultures colliding inside one girls mind, and the confusion that a young child can make of such big issues.

There are, however, problems with this novel. The strange and confusing tense shifts fail to build the tension as they intend; I am unsure how Polly’s family can afford their magnificent new house; the ending is a little confusing. But overall the plot is engrossing, and Ajuba is such an enthralling narrator that you do not notice anything outside the story taking place before your eyes. There are many layers of mystery, many different plot lines which you feel tugging you onwards toward their dramatic conclusions.

There will be few debut novels published in 2009 more accomplished and enjoyable as True Murder.

6.5 out of 10

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