The tannie returns with a satanic mechanic
Tannie Maria and the Satanic Mechanic by Sally Andrew
Umwizi imprint of Penguin Random House SA 400 pages R230
This is Sally Andrew’s second book after Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery and follows on her adventures as an agony aunt for the local Klein Karoo Gazette in Ladismith, off Route 62, and as an amateur sleuth in the surrounding areas. But Tannie Maria has her own set of problems deep in her heart, emanating from a brutal marriage to her late husband, Fanie, and in this book, from witnessing two murders.
The beauty of the novel lies not so much in the narrative, although that is absorbing in its own right, as in the poignant and evocative creation of a pocket of South African life, that of a small Karoo community, and the way each character – from tall, blue-eyed, posh English Hattie, the editor of the Gazette, to Jessie, with “her smile wide in her brown face”, who covers the big stories – has her own set of difficulties. The writing and the descriptions of small-town life are gentle and charming, while never degenerating into the crude stereotypes occasionally found in this genre. Tannie Maria makes us homesick for the dry countryside she describes, although she says: “We had been lucky with the rains this year. On the mountainside there were some patches of purple and yellow where the ericas and other fynbos were flowering, but mostly the veld was different shades of green … of the karee, gwarrie and boerboon trees, the bright green of the spekbome.”
Andrew seems almost to be following in the established tradition of the “plaasroman” in English-language South African writing, for which Olive Schreiner and Pauline Smith are the best-known protagonists. Her setting may not be strictly speaking a farm, but the action is set in a rural context and the issues that arise are contemporary South African problems; for instance, the question of San land claims near Kuruman, with local character Slimkat having won international funding for a legal battle that culminated in the Supreme Court finding in their favour, much to the disgust of Agribeest, a large cattle company that was also interested in the land. But the novel is in no way dry or weighty. In fact, just as an inquiry might be at risk of becoming too intense, Tannie Maria is reminded in some way of a delicious recipe or dish she can’t wait to sample, and a quaint feature of the novel is that at the end of the book, she shares the recipes for many of them, like mosbolletjie bread and sweet potato cake and other local delicacies.
The characters are beautifully drawn, from the main love interest, tall Detective Lieutenant Henk Kannemeyer with his chestnut moustache and Toyota Hilux bakkie, to Ricus, the satanic mechanic, who fixes panel vans and farms a few sheep, but whose main interest is in fixing broken hearts and minds. “His voice is heavy and warm, like coffee with thick grounds at the bottom of the cup. Moerkoffie,” and he sets in motion the Saturday evening counselling sessions that ultimately lead to a mystery being solved, and Tannie Maria finding peace at last from her demons.
The language is colloquial and natural, the rhythms of local speech artfully transcribed, and as an added bonus, there is a gentle humour throughout that playfully mocks our pretensions.
It is so refreshing to find a writer who can deal with weighty issues and current concerns, as well as the horror of aspects of our history, with a light touch while never making them seem trivial. I can’t wait for Tannie Maria’s next dilemma.