Review of Things Unseen by Pamela Power Print
Friday, 25 November 2016 15:12

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.

The image of a peaceful, pretty surface that belies what is beneath is initially introduced by the book’s cover picture of a lily pond—at the bottom of any lily pond is a sludgy, slimy sediment—which foreshadows the notion that unresolved traumas (of the individual characters and of collective South African society) underlie the sparkling humour and fast paced action of this novel.  These unresolved traumas are the ‘things unseen’ suggested by the novel’s title, those issues that are not discussed, acknowledged, or processed but that nevertheless exert their influence.

This is certainly not a grim and dismal read, though. The characterisation and dramatic tension—as well as the entanglement of a love triangle—keep the reader invested throughout.  Power’s keen ear for dialogue results in believable and recognizable characters, and is evidence of the author’s acute observance of South African personalities.  The pacing slows a little in the mid-section of the book, where the romantic narrative strand takes precedence, but the action soon picks up—Emma le Roux metaphorically puts on her lipstick—and moves swiftly towards the conclusion of the murder mystery.  Overall, with its subtly balanced, underlying social commentary, this is a satisfying and entertaining novel.

Things Unseen (2016) is Pamela Power’s second novel, and is published by Clockwork Books (ISBN 978-0-620-71843-1).  For more information on the author, please see her profile feature on the KZN Literary Tourism website.

Beverley Jane Cornelius is a PhD candidate in English Studies at the University of KwaZulu Natal.