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by Deon Meyer and K L Seegers, trans.
Random House Canada, March 2009
385 pages
$32.95 CAD
ISBN: 0307356620

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

South Africa can be a dangerous country, so the better-off tourist may feel it wise to hire protection from a firm like Body Armour, a private security company headed by ex-regimental sergeant-major Jeanette Louw. When they do, they can pick from two options - the deterrents, the Gorillas, who guard through their intimidating presence, or the Invisibles, discreet guardians who blend into the surroundings, keeping a sharp eye out for danger. Lemmer is one of the latter, hired to look after Emma le Roux. Emma, a brand consultant from Cape Town, is looking for her brother, who disappeared and was presumed dead, many years ago.

And Emma seems to need protection. Three masked men have already burst into the beach house where she is staying for the Christmas holidays. What they intended was not clear as she barely escaped. Now she wants to go to the Lowveld, on the border of Mozambique and the home of Kruger National Park, the source of a photograph of a fugitive wanted for the murder of several men involved in the killing of a number of protected vultures, presumably for ceremonial reasons. Emma is convinced that this man on the run is her long-lost brother, Jacobus. She needs someone to watch her back on the trip and Lemmer needs the money, so the pair set off, first to a luxurious game reserve, then to a bungalow in the bush. Emma's life is under threat in both places, and though it violates two of his primary rules of conduct, not to trust a small woman and not to get involved with a client, Lemmer concludes that he must find out what is at issue if she is ever to be safe.

What he uncovers is complex, corrupt, and confusing. He must deal with the aftermath of apartheid, long-standing anger at past and present injustices, and racial tensions. He runs across a mysterious group of eco-terrorists called Hb, white defenders of the threat to the African environment that they believe is posed by the land claims of local tribesmen. The police chief, a member of one of these tribes, is implacably hostile to Lemmer and his enquiries. And he is dogged by a mysterious bunch of masked men, perhaps the same who threatened Emma in the first place, who seem intent on seeing him dead.

BLOOD SAFARI is an utterly rivetting book, not so much for its plot, which, while exciting enough, is hardly really new, or even for its characters, though Lemmer is certainly in his own way unique (for one thing, he is a teetotaller, and not because he's a recovering alcoholic), but for the country in which it is set and what Meyer conveys about its complexity, difficulties, and attractions. Told in the voice of a white Afrikaner, one who has no nostalgia for the old South Africa but who nevertheless still has difficulty navigating the new one, the book provides a rich insight into the country fifteen years after the end of apartheid.

In an interview last year for the Wall Street Journal, Meyer denied that he intended an earlier novel, DEVIL'S PEAK, as a piece of social criticism. I wonder if he would say the same about this one. If it is not social criticism, it certainly touches on many social questions and from a variety of points of view. Nor are some of the issues uniquely South African. Canadians, for example, will recognize the competing claims of environmentalists and First Nations traditionalists that are at the centre of this book.

The South Africa we see here is not an exotic land of majestic wild beasts and quaint and colourful inhabitants. Rather it is a modern country of striking natural beauty with a priceless ecological heritage, struggling to come to terms with and if possible transcend its past and arrive at a future in which that heritage can be preserved.

BLOOD SAFARI is translated from the Afrikaans by KL Seegers in a version that is fluid, transparent, and altogether effective. Indeed, I had to look again to be sure that this was a translation. Meyer may be the only crime fiction writer writing in Afrikaans, and we are extremely lucky that he has found an English voice in Seegers.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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