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Gallows Hill PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 10 October 2011 16:27

Written by Margie Orford (Jonathan Ball)

Review by Margaret Lenta

This is Margie Orford’s fourth Clare Hart thriller. All but the second, Blood Rose, much of which takes place in Namibia and which focuses on that country’s violent past and its legacy in the present, have been set in Cape Town.

Gallows Hill considers a more distant past: that of slavery, which has left burials all over the city (more slaves in the city than free people throughout the eighteenth century) as well as a more recent death which is a spin-off of the apartheid conflict. Its other preoccupation is the struggle for unlimited power, economic and political, which characterises the second phase (after the hurrahs) of a democratic regime which immediately follows a tyranny.

A bergie dies of natural causes on a site where modern development has begun; her dog turns up ancient bones. No one is surprised, but regulations nowadays force the police to investigate, and a more recent burial of a young woman who died violently 23 years ago is unearthed. The broken skeletons of slaves, the young woman, the dead bergie– who wears an inherited slave disk – form a continuity of oppression and crime concealment reaching into the present.

Always in the background, sometimes in the foreground, is the jumble of contradictory attitudes to their slave ancestors of their present-day descendants. Hart’s partner, Riedwan Faizal, says that his family “spent 150 years pretending they came from Java on some fucking involuntary 18th century package tour and just happened to like it here,” an example of the strange shame of slave descendants, whilst the descendants of the great slave-owning families of the Cape seem to feel little beyond pride in their ancestors’ power and affluence.

In these circumstances it is easy for developers to manipulate public opinion and orchestrate a small-scale riot which aims to prevent investigation of the young woman’s death – “Why is that skeleton, jus’ mos a heap of old bones from 20 years ago, why is that more important than our ancestors who were murdered and buried there?” “You mustn’t stop this job … Our children must eat.” Orford is also skilled at reproducing the formulas used to defend corruption: “Business practices must change;”“Do you object to progress?” The shadowy presence of a political figure turned gang boss from the north of the country, who evokes the Struggle of which he was not part to justify his appetite for power and wealth, begins to emerge. Modern technology – DNA testing, Facebook exchanges, facial reconstruction by a forensic artist – are used to rediscover the past.

Orford’s detective fiction seems always to have asked the question of what physical environments give birth to crime: in the first, Like Clockwork, the sex clubs and the coastal strip of middle-class affluence which are part of Seapoint give one answer. The rundown warehouses of the inner city suburbs in Daddy’s Girl give another. In Gallows Hill the forgotten graveyard in Greenpoint, the steep streets of the Bo-Kaap, with their houses painted red, pink, white, yellow and green, and the affluence of Constantia Valley are perhaps the strongest answer she has offered yet.