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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

A crime thriller that can offer more than cheap thrills: Reading HJ Golakai’s The Lazarus Effect


Karlien van der Schyff - 2011-08-17

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Title: The Lazarus Effect
Author: HJ Golakai
Publisher:Kwela Books
ISBN: 9780795703195
Price: R195.95

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HJ Golakai’s debut crime thriller, The Lazarus Effect, combines the best elements of genre writing with a more subtle exploration of the fate of missing children in Cape Town. Genre writing, in brief, is when a novel follows specific conventions associated with a particular genre. In the case of The Lazarus Effect the novel offers readers all the elements one would expect any good crime thriller to have, the most notable being the anticipation of surprise plot twists and the accompanying rush of page-turning adrenaline. However, The Lazarus Effect also breaks the conventions of its genre in a number of crucial ways that set it apart from the majority of contemporary crime fiction.

The Lazarus Effect tells the story of an ambitious investigative journalist, Voinjama Johnson, more commonly known by the shortened version of her name, Vee. Vee’s life is thrown into panic and disarray when she starts seeing disturbing visions of a young girl in a red woollen hat. When she discovers a photograph of the same girl on a local clinic’s notice board, she learns that the phantom girl of her visions is a Cape Town teenager named Jacqueline Paulsen, who left her house one Saturday morning two years ago to play tennis with friends and was never seen again. While ostensibly researching a story about missing children in Cape Town, Vee sets out on a quest to discover the truth behind the disappearance of young Jacqui in the hope of bringing the mysterious visions to an end.

The plot trajectory of Vee’s quest is pure crime thriller: a pretty young girl is killed, the heroine devotes all her energy to finding the missing girl, risking her own life in the process and finally solving the case. As in most crime thrillers the heroine, with her trusty sidekick at her side, follows various sketchy leads, and her progress is repeatedly hindered by obstinate or untruthful sources. As the case drags on her personal life is subsumed by her growing obsession and her relationships suffer. Her life is threatened as she gets closer to discovering the truth, and finally, when the shocking plot twist reveals the identity of the killer, our brave heroine both solves the mystery and saves the day.

While the plot development rather obviously follows the conventions expected of a typical crime thriller, Golakai nevertheless skilfully manages to keep the surprise ending a true surprise until the final pages. In this way Golakai cleverly utilises the conventions of genre writing to offer fans of crime fiction exactly the kind of suspense, mystery and thrills they would expect of a good crime thriller, but also reinterprets these conventions in important ways.

What especially distinguishes The Lazarus Effect from so many other crime thrillers is the novel’s portrayal of women. This is already apparent when one considers Golakai’s choice of protagonist. Vee is a clever, feisty heroine, physically strong enough to defend herself against male assailants and fearless in her pursuit of justice. In a genre that is often dominated by the characteristically tough and cynical “hardboiled” male protagonist it is unusual to encounter powerful female characters that truly challenge the stereotypes of women in crime fiction and have sufficient emotional depth to make them believable. This, however, is not unique to The Lazarus Effect, for other female crime writers have created equally strong women as their lead characters. Margie Orford’s Clare Hart series, for example, also boasts a powerful female protagonist who challenges the stereotypical portrayal of women in crime fiction.

Instead, The Lazarus Effect does far more than only subvert these stereotypes in terms of its protagonist. The novel is truly remarkable for the way in which Golakai portrays the young female victim. In a genre where women seem to be helpless victims by default, and where murders of women are often portrayed with sensationalist, exaggerated and often pornographic violence, The Lazarus Effect is exceptional for challenging the violence so often inflicted on the female body by crime fiction as a genre. Given the disturbing prevalence of violence against women in South Africa, local crime fiction could run the risk of sensationalising a sensitive and weighty social issue if it unthinkingly reiterates the portrayal of women as the default victims of abuse, rape and murder. The Lazarus Effect, however, tackles the disappearance and murder of a teenage girl without turning the violence done to her into a spectacle of sensationalist or pornographic cruelty. Not only does the novel’s portrayal of women truly challenge the stereotypes often associated with crime fiction, but its unconventional interpretation of Jacqui’s victimhood also gives rise to a genuinely unexpected surprise ending. 

Furthermore, The Lazarus Effect offers a subtle commentary on the fate of vulnerable and missing children in Cape Town through mirroring the death of the missing teenager with the death of an unnamed 11-year-old street child. This boy’s brief life becomes intertwined with both Jacqui’s death and Vee’s life, offering more depth to a genre of writing not usually noted for its contemplative qualities. The novel opens when a sudden flood of winter rain washes Jacqui’s remains out of a storm drain, and closes with the young homeless boy as he curls up under a bridge and dies from exposure. This circular, mirroring structure forces the reader to reflect on the helplessness of so many South African children, as it broadens the scope of death in the novel from the centrality of Vee’s search for Jacqui to, very literally, children suffering on the margins of both the novel and society. “Do you know how many children go missing from homes in South Africa?” Jacqui’s distraught mother asks Vee during their first meeting. “Over one thousand six hundred per year. And three hundred of them are never heard from again” (57). However, while Jacqui is mourned by her mother and while Vee does everything in her power to learn what became of the missing girl, the reader is left with no doubt that the solitary boy under the bridge will not be missed, that no one will grieve the loss of his young life and that no one will suffer sleepless nights looking for him. In this way, Golakai’s crime fiction draws attention to the myriad kinds of violence and abuse that so many South African children are subjected to, but would never feature in a typical crime thriller concerned only with sensationalist thrills.

The Lazarus Effect is a thoughtful and entertaining debut that offers readers the suspense, mystery and adventure one looks for in any crime thriller, but presents these thrills in a more nuanced way than is normally associated with the genre. Any crime novel that can present its subject matter without sensationalising it, and that can write about the reality of violence suffered by women and children without turning it into a spectacle of brutality, is truly deserving of praise.