The Lazarus Effect by Hawa Jande Golakai

The Lazarus Effect by Hawa Jande Golakai

In trying to understand the narration of South African crime fiction in post-apartheid South Africa, we could perhaps turn to one of Johannesburg’s finest crime writers Jassy Mackenzie. Mackenzie believes that the apartheid regime has had a major impact on contemporary crime fiction and that some crime villains have their roots buried “in the rotting carcass of apartheid and some of today’s books are stills set in that era.” One might say it’s difficult and quite frankly shallow to write characters without any roots. In SA’s case, everybody’s roots naturally come burdened with our dark and violent past. And we still see that past literally spilling into our present crime trends.

Liberian-born Hawa Jande Golakai moved around the world as a result of political and economic unrest before coming to Cape Town as a student in 2003. Her debut novel, The Lazarus Effect, is clearly drawn from her own lived experiences as there are similarities between her own movement and those of Voinjama Vee Johnson, her protagonist. They both emigrated as a result of the Liberian civil war which destroyed many a human life and settled in Cape Town a bit, before taking off again, albeit in different directions.

The Lazarus Effect is a fast-paced Cape Town based thriller which tells the story of Vee Johnson, an investigative journalist, who’s racing against time to put together the puzzle of a missing girl for her magazine article… Little does she know what awaits her and her deadline. The scenario is that of a teenage girl leaving her home on a Saturday morning for tennis practice. Later on the teenager’s skull is smashed into a metal grate. Battling through anxiety attacks and physical attacks, Vee and her disowned lesbian sidekick, Chloe Bishop, have to get to the root cause of what might have led to the disappearance of Jacqueline Paulsen. Fortunately for Vee, fighting for her life is nothing new to her. As young as ten years old, amidst the chaos in Liberia, she had learned what it literally meant to fight for one’s life.

There aren’t many black women crime writers whose stories are based in Cape Town. Cape Town itself is seen by many as the epitome of all things beautiful, laid back and decent even though statistics keep suggesting now and again that it is arguably among the world’s leading crime capitals. The usual suspects in most novels are men. The victims are women. Annoyed by the fact that women are often just the background noise in crime novels, Golakai disrupts that narrative by taking the women from the periphery of the crime world to the centre of it.

Golakai cleverly puts the spotlight on a range of themes in her debut novel and they include fragile masculinities, family tensions, mental health, complicated teenage half-sibling rivalry, classism and wealth. She shows readers how violent racial tensions can be. She shows readers how violent the wealthy can get, all the while hiding behind high walls and fat bank accounts. And like herself, Golakai’s characters migrate easily finding themselves in different parts of the world. But readers are left wondering, Is it running away? 

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