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Review of ‘True Murder’ by Yaba Badoe

A new addition to the African murder mystery genre, Ghanaian Yaba Badoe explores the mystery – literal and symbolic – of coming of age outside Africa.

Until quite recently the mystery story was not well known to African writings, but this is changing rapidly. Yaba Badoe joins authors like fellow Ghanaian Kwei Quartey, author of ‘Wife of the Gods’, and Kenyan Mukoma we Ngugi, who wrote, ‘Nairobi Heat’,in bringing us this new genre.

‘True Murder’ is a suspense novel with two parallel mysteries woven together and set around three young girls at an English boarding school. The story is told through the voice of 11-year-old Ghanaian Ajuba, taken away from her mother and sent to England, to a Devon boarding school by her father. She makes friends with the confident and flamboyant Polly Venus and is slowly sucked into her life and dysfunctional family. The girls engage in the antics of childhood detective work.

In the first mystery plot, it becomes increasingly clear that a tragedy is in the making with each event taking Ajuba closer to the truth about her own mother and her friend.

In the second mystery, Polly introduces Ajuba and another girl, Beth, to the American magazine, ‘True Murder’ which they read secretly and avidly. Ajuba in particular is taken in by the ‘Principles of Detection’ which become useful when the girls discover bones wrapped in a cloth in Polly’s attic and decide to solve the mystery. The three girls complement each other: one is sympathetic, intense and cautious; another is impulsive, and self-assured; and the third is impatient and a daring go-between.

The two mysteries tell the tale of families being torn apart, of the cruelty which we unleash on those closest to us. Its also a coming of age story of two childhood friends joined together in their shared hurt, each finding different ways to cope with loneliness and loss. In some instances there are cultural-specific responses to events and situations but essentially, this is a universal story which explores family relationships, conflicting loyalties, infidelity, loss, jealously and the fear of looking at one’s inner self.

Badoe’s recreation of the English boarding school and middles class, which are mysteries in themselves, is uncannily accurate. I cannot help but imagine it is based on her own experience and observations. ‘True Murder’ is beautifully written, with crisp narratives and full of delicate descriptions of landscapes and colours and the sensual flirtations that pass between lovers. I particularly loved her description of music and the wonders of dance:

‘“To dance, Ajuba,” she would say, dragging me onto the veranda at Kuku Hill, “you must connect with the spirit between your legs and hips. Dance is sacred joy.” … and copying Aunt Rose’s movements, following the singers’ instructions on how to slither like soup, shoulders and hips swirling, a whip in motion, I learnt how to move, arms unfolding as my body looped and rolled.’

At times, I felt I transported back to my own teenage experience of the English boarding school. Shared baths, half-terms spent with strange English families and a constant longing for home. At others, I was miles away at home in West Africa, in a completely different cultural and family setting, and in between, a sensitive and excellently written novel of personal tragedy and childhood mysteries.


* Yaba Badoe’s ‘True Murder’ (2009) is published by Jonathan Cape.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.