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by Malla Nunn
Atria/Emily Bestler, June 2014
352 pages
ISBN: 1451616961

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There has always been a strong instructive element in the Emmanuel Cooper series. Apartheid South Africa is a world that we know existed, even know some details about, but what it was like actually living in that regime, particularly when you're not definitely part of the elite? Well that's where this series comes in.

One of the great strengths of the books is the way that the world that Cooper and his compatriots occupy has been expanding. This is a series that could be read out of sequence but will work much better if you can follow them in order. The progression steers the reader through the stark and quite mind-boggling viciousness of the apartheid regime. The way that the colour of your skin affects absolutely every aspect of your life. Including, most poignantly in PRESENT DARKNESS, who you love, and the children that you cherish.

The central device of the plot - the assault of a respectable, white couple, laid squarely on the shoulders of black youth, with very little in the way of investigation, and some decidedly dodgy behaviour from local police - works well, and sadly feels all too real. That tension between the races, the difference in living standards - the white neighbourhood of the assault, versus the township of Cooper's youth are described wonderfully - not in too many words, but in the reactions of the characters, the complications of adjustment. The corruption of the authorities, and the powerlessness imposed by Apartheid are laid out elegantly, spread through the story with a deft touch, making the whole situation more profoundly moving than a lecture ever could.

Nunn has a visual way of writing that doesn't come across as a screenplay in the making; rather it pulls the reader into the townships, and the dust, and the tension and fear that sits at the back of every non-authority figure throughout the entire story. You can feel and see Cooper's worry about his little family's fate and his guilt at his complicity in getting them into this situation. You can see and feel Shabalala's quiet pain and dignity in the face of his son's fate. You can see the bush and the flight and plight of women taken or put in such difficult places.

We're fortunate indeed that writers like Malla Nunn are here, working on books like PRESENT DARKNESS. This is crime fiction that goes into an area of human behaviour and a history that needs to be held up to the light, remembered, examined and understood.

Karen Chisholm has been reading crime fiction since she could hold a book upright. When not reading she builds websites and pretends to be a farmer. Her website, AustCrimeFiction has been covering fiction from Australia and New Zealand since 2006: http://www.austcrimefiction.org/

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm, June 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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