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Red Ink: Angela Makholwa’s Page-Turning Debut Reviewed

Red Ink, by Angela Makholwa published by Picador Africa / Pan Macmillan, reviewed by Mike Nicol. The review originally appeared in the Sunday Independent.

Red ink Some weeks ago I made a plea for the publication of local popular fiction. For although we have a small tradition of commercial fiction it has largely been obscured by the more portentous qualities of our literary novels, and surely it’s time to correct the imbalance?

Surely we are now far enough into our age of normality for authors to feel okay about writing novels for no other reason than entertainment? Surely there are readers who want fast-paced thrillers, crime novels, family sagas, romances set against the background of their country?

Judging by Angela Makholwa’s compulsive debut novel, Red Ink, I am not alone in believing that both those questions can be answered with a simple yes.

For Makholwa has written a crime thriller that is going to keep the lights in Sandton’s suburbs burning way into the night. And elsewhere in the country too for that matter.

Red Ink is one of those novels you can’t put down. At its centre is a hip funky single mom called Lucy Khambule. Once a journalist, now the sort of PR consultant that can work magic on the dullest of accounts, she is a rising star in Jozi’s fast and edgy business world.

Then her past intervenes in the form of an unusual request from a convicted serial killer doing time in C-Max: he wants her to write his biography. Years previously, as a journalist, Lucy had written about him, now he wishes to reveal all, including the rapes and brutal murders – and they are truly brutal as the novel’s prologue makes perfectly clear – of some forty women. Lucy, still imbued with the instincts of a journalist, can’t turn down a good story. And so she gets lured into the frightening world of Napoleon Dingiswayo.

As in all good thrillers nothing is what it seems. Lurking in the background is the Sponsor with his money and his power and his ability to manipulate both Napoleon Dingiswayo in prison and the killer’s even more sinister brother Sifiso at large on Joburg’s streets.

Also in the shadows is Tshepo, wanted by the cops on suspicion of murdering his fiancée and Lucy’s business partner, Patricia. Why does he stake out Lucy’s townhouse? Why does he follow her? The menace permeates every sentence and soon Lucy’s day-to-day life is threaded with ominous allusions.

But it has to be said that Lucy’s ordinary life is a gas: she’s got an obliging lover with a high-end lifestyle and an ability to give her multiple orgasms; a best friend who hooks a rich BEE operator and simultaneously a role in Generations which means she can give up her job doing telephone sex. Lucy’s drive is a Polo Playa; cranked up loud on the sound system is Bob Marley’s greatest hits. The lady’s a dream, and you want to be part of her life, at least until the killer moves in and the body count rises.

Red Ink has everything that makes a crime thriller smoke: strong sexy characters, jazzy settings that range from the Zone in Rosebank to C-Max to nightclubs to the streets of Melville. It has suspense, violence, murder. Best of all it carries no old South African baggage: this is the indifferent world of new bling South Africa. So much is recognisable but the story is fantasy and Makholwa is adept at playing off our secret fears against our perverse love of being frightened by our entertainment. Clearly she is going to keep us thrilled for years yet.

If I have a quibble, and I do, it’s with the publisher. Some judicious editing mightn’t have gone amiss particularly in sorting out the rather inelegant plotting at the end of the novel. Occasionally, too, the writing lapses into a naivety that an editor could have toughened up. Also the cover is a mess of type and type styles (overkill on the red ink theme) and the author’s name is all but obscured by an illustration of blood splotches.

Angela Makholwa deserves better. Don’t be put off, read her.


Recent comments:

  • fredkhumalo
    July 25th, 2007 @16:45 #

    Was equally bowled over by the freshness of Angela's writing. You go gal!


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