Review by Beverley Jane Cornelius
“ ‘Mum always said, even if the bombs are dropping around you, you must make sure that you have your lipstick on… and clean knickers.’ ” That’s the spirit that sustains protagonist, Emma le Roux, as her seemingly perfect life is bombarded with crises in Pamela Power’s novel, Things Unseen. And it is in this humorous tone that Power tells a deceptively light-hearted tale featuring murder, abuse, and alcoholism.
The novel takes the form of a classic ‘whodunnit’ but with a distinctly South African flavour and a Johannesburg setting. The central character, Emma le Roux, lives a comfortable and privileged life in an affluent part of the city, but the horrors of a ‘home invasion’ and a murder swiftly dispel the illusion of perfection and provide the context for astute observations about South African society and its attitudes to crime.
In this context the author has effectively captured the underlying sense of the ridiculous that is often present in contemporary South African interactions. At one point, for example, Captain Tshabalala is sidetracked in the middle of his investigation, as the finger print technician dusts the scene, by a conversation comparing pay scales in security and policing work, and has to be pointedly reminded about the task at hand, while Mr Le Roux is concerned with having the murder weapon, an expensive golf club, returned to him: “That’s a Callaway Big Bertha Hybrid [he says]. Cost me six grand”. The novel’s themes—of crime and poverty, money and power, white privilege and the plight of migrant workers, and even the fraught subjects of infertility, abortion, and parenting—are all handled with this sardonic wit, a dark humour that serves to starkly foreground the desensitization of the South African psyche.
In that atmosphere, then, the very flimsy evidence of this particular crime can be quickly pieced together to reach the convenient conclusion that the gardener, a migrant worker, must be guilty. However, all is not as it seems and, as Emma continues to question the facts and as her placid life becomes increasingly disturbed, the secrets of the past persistently challenge the tranquility of the present.