Saturday, January 9, 2010

For Saturday morning, as noir as it gets . . .

I'm a lucky person. Because I write and report on books for NPR, publishers send me a lot of advance copies. Which, as I am an avid and omnivorous reader, turns the FedEx delivery person into a year-round Santa Claus.

Mixed Blood is one such present sent to me by Picador, McMillan's fine literary trade paper imprint. It's a first novel by one Roger Smith, of whom I'd never heard so much as a whisper. But as its subtitle was "a Cape Town thriller," and I'm a sucker for a good thriller, I put it in my pile by the bed and eventually got around to picking it up. And then not putting it down again.

I read Mixed Blood fast, turning one page just to get to the next; even though it is one of the darkest, most unrelentingly brutal books I've ever read in my entire reading life.

Roger Smith, who bills himself in his author blurb as a screenwriter, director, and producer, was born in Johannesburg and now lives in Cape Town. Mixed Blood is set in an area of Cape Town know as The Flats; which, when I began the novel, was as unknown to me as Roger Smith.

So, like any truly curious person, I took to Wikipedia, which begins its entry on the Flats this way:
The Cape Flats (Afrikaans: Die Kaapse Vlakte) is an expansive, low-lying, flat area situated to the southeast of the central business district of Cape Town. To most people in Cape Town, the area is known simply as 'The Flats'.

 Described by some as 'apartheid's ground', from the 1950s the area became home to people the apartheid government designated as non-white. Race-based legislation such as the Group Areas Act and pass laws either forced non-white people out of more central urban areas designated for white people and into government-built townships in the Flats, or made living in the area illegal, forcing many people designated as Black into informal settlements elsewhere in the Flats. The Flats have since then been home to much of the population of Greater Cape Town.
Just look at that picture and imagine spending your life there under the hot African sun, with no job, no hope, and easy access to guns and drugs.

As you might imagine, Mixed Blood is a cheerless, brutal tale of class and race and poverty and crime and the tyranny of petty power. If you are squeamish and don't tolerate brutality well,  I cannot recommend it. If you want to walk the streets of an existence unimaginably far removed from your own, I do. Once I started Mixed Blood, I felt it would be somehow denying reality to put it down. It would have meant I didn't want to acknowledge that such a place as The Flats exists.

Yet isn't that the point of such shadowy fiction -- to hook us with story, and so make us walk paths much, much darker than our own?

Roger Smith is a good, unobtrusive writer. His words never claim attention just for themselves. It's the story that matters to Mr. Smith, and he writes of The Flats and its inhabitants with the authority of familiarity.

Before reading Mixed Blood, when I'd think of South Africa, I'd think of a smiling Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Now I think of Nelson Mandela, Truth and Reconciliation, and The Flats.

I 'm not sure I really wanted to know about The Flats, about how determinedly the dark underbelly of apartheid lingers in South Africa. But now, thanks to Roger Smith, I do know.

Roger Smith's next South African thriller, Wake Up Dead, comes out next month. I will probably face up to some cosmic sense of literary responsibility and read it.


  1. Thank you, Martha, for the extraordinarily well-researched review. Much appreciated.

  2. Hi Martha,
    Mixed blood was one of my top reads of 2009. Like you, I went to Wikipedia (and a couple of other web sites) and learned that Roger isn't exaggerating. I also wandered around Cape Town and The Flats on Google Earth to try to get a visual feel of where the action took place.

    Your review is excellent and captured what made the book enjoyable for me.

    I have had the opportunity to read an ARC of Wake Up Dead and recommend it highly. As you said about Mixed Blood, it isn't for the squeamish. Of the two, Wake Up Dead is my favorite, both for the characters as well as the story.