The tan­nie re­turns with a satanic me­chanic

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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.

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