Book Review: A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn

I recently finished reading A Beautiful Place to Die, a mystery novel set in the South Africa of the 1950s. The author, Malla Nunn, is South African herself, and it was a very interesting read. South African history really intrigues me and I’ve read a couple of books (Kaffir Boy springs to mind as another example) that explore apartheid policies in South Africa and their impact on the region and would really like to read more. I feel like I, like a lot of readers in the United States, tend to focus on books written about the US by authors from the US, or books about other places written by people from the United States. This is something I am trying to make a conscious effort to break away from[1. Literally, I have a complex formula for book buying that I use when I go to Gallery Books to encourage myself to widen my reading tastes and explore more diverse authors and topics.] and it’s proving difficult because bookstores and libraries are primarily stocked with US-centric books, since that’s what people seem to want to read.

The story in A Beautiful Place to Die revolves around the death of a white police officer on a rural station. A lone officer is sent to investigate because the initial call reporting the incident is assumed to be a prank, and a series of complex events unfold. I don’t want to get into the plot too much beyond that because I don’t want to spoil you.

I will say that there were some terrific characters in this book. Some interesting and compelling character development happened to draw me into the story via the characters. Nunn accomplished that rare feat of developing a medium sized cast of characters who all felt fully realized and real. They were all individuals with their own histories and motivations and I didn’t confuse them (which is a common problem for me with reading; if a book has too¬† many characters and they aren’t well fleshed out, I start to mix them all up).

Structurally, I really loved this book. Nunn uses language in really interesting ways and she has a great descriptive voice. Many scenes were very roughly sketched out but done so in a way that they really came to life. I like authors who can walk that fine line between being too sparse and too detailed. Nunn allows readers to fill in some of the blanks to bring the scenes into reality in their heads, without leaving you feeling like you are an outsider looking in. It’s a writing style that is reminiscent of some classic mystery novelists, but with a twist.

Because this is also a book that demands that readers confront race and think about racial issues. Race; Black, white, ‘coloured,’ is a theme that runs through the whole book. Sometimes it’s at the forefront, like when people are discussing the apartheid laws and the restrictive effects they have on society, like a police officer not being able to be present at an autopsy because he’s Black. Sometimes it’s in the background, the undercurrent running behind all of the scenes and events in this book. While specific to South Africa, it definitely spurred some more general thoughts for me as a reader.

Themes of corruption and abuse of power also run throughout the book. There’s sexual assault and abuse, for example, and a conversation about how the community tolerates it because of who it happens to. There’s rampant abuse of social positions and people who are intimidated and threatened into remaining silent because they are not among the elite. It’s not a story as simple as ‘the white people are the villains and the people of colour are the good folks,’ but it does point how power and privilege intersect to destroy societies. And it shows what happens when people achieve such power that they can run the world as their fiefdom and remain unchallenged.

One of the things that the book really illustrated is how racial lines inevitably blur. In the Apartheid Era, where there was a concerted attempt to separate the races in the name of ‘purity,’ racial mixing obviously still occurred. And resulted in people who defied classification, like Black men who looked white. The book really made me realise firstly how much I don’t know about racial politics in South Africa, and it also made me think a lot about issues of passing, not just racially but in other spheres as well.

I like books that don’t just tell a compelling and interesting story, but also force me to think. A Beautiful Place to Die made me question some assumptions and it left me wanting more; not just of the story and the characters, but more of the history and culture of the region it was set in. It’s the sort of book I would recommend to someone who wants to start exploring this particular era in history, but doesn’t really know where to begin, someone who wants a jumping off point to pique the interest and drive them into seeking out more sources and more information.

The best books, I always say, are the ones that make me run to the library/bookstore when I’m done to find more. To fill out the story. This is the kind of book that I think I will enjoy reading after being better educated because the subtle undercurrents will become more apparent. I will get more out of the story. And I like that, too. I like books that I can read again and get more out of, because re-reading is a particular passion of mine.