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by Andrew Brown
Minotaur Books, June 2014
272 pages
ISBN: 1250035996

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

COLDSLEEP LULLABY by Andrew Brown opens with a slow, closely observed scene of a body floating down a river. That close attention to detail and thoughtful pace set a tone that continues throughout the novel and works to heighten the tension subtly but effectively, leaving the reader pulled forward, horrified, and, ultimately, thrilled.

Set in South Africa, the novel, like the river that features prominently in it, winds through two story lines, each with unexpected undertows and murky events that don't become clear to the reader until the very end. One story follows the present-day investigation of the murder of Melanie du Preez, the daughter of a prominent professor who is a fierce defender of the Afrikaans culture. The second story is set in the past and unflinchingly tells of the brutal, early life in the colony. The stories, with their parallel and divergent themes work together to add an unsettling perspective to what would otherwise simply be a great police procedural, giving it a depth that, as uncomfortable as it may be, contributes to the realism of the story.

Also adding to the realism are gritty details about the club life fueled by drugs, alcohol, music, and prostitution, along with a variety of prejudices that Februarie must sift through as he searches for Melanie's murderer, as well as all-too-real descriptions of Februarie's struggles with his own demons. Recently returned to work after a battle with drug addiction and a failed marriage, Februarie moves cautiously into interactions with his assistant Xoliswa while, at the same time, becomes recklessly involved with activities at the club where Melanie was last seen. Februarie's history clouds his judgment and decisions, but his stumbling through the clues is handled so skillfully that the twists and turns of the plot seem to arise inevitably.

Februarie's struggles with his personal history dovetail, by the end of the novel, with what at first appears to be a completely separate storyline telling of slave owners and slaves early in the colony's development. But Brown, while never didactically stating his themes, makes it clear that the tensions so prevalent throughout South Africa's history are far from resolved and continue to affect current-day characters and events. By unflinchingly portraying prejudices of both the past and present, as well as the manner in which he tells Februarie's story, Brown shows that we can escape neither our own histories nor the larger histories of the places we live. We can however, work to keep them from defining our futures, but that's no easy path.

Obviously, those are deep subjects for a genre often viewed as escapist, but this novel pulls it off, managing to be both chilling and compelling by expertly balancing a good story with deeply drawn characters and thought-provoking subjects. It's not surprising, therefore, that it was the winner of South Africa's Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

Meredith Frazier, a writer with a background in English literature, lives in Dallas, Texas

Reviewed by Meredith Frazier, March 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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