Radmann, Christopher - 'Held Up'
Paul van Niekirk is edging his brand new BMW on to the motorway ramp, just having picked it up from the dealership. He is driving the car back to his home in Midrand, just outside Johannesburg. But here in the middle of the traffic queue, a gun appears at his window. "Maak Oop". Open the window. Paralysed by fear (they shoot you if you don't cooperate, and they shoot you if you do), he eventually lowers his window. In the slow motion agony that follows he is dragged from the car by his hair and kicked in the ribs as he falls to the ground. He hears the roar of the engine as the BMW speeds away, swerving through the traffic. Gone. As Paul stands in shock, he realises that his nine-month old baby daughter is still strapped into her safety seat in the back of the car. Gone. Much later, after the police interviews, after Paul breaks the news to his wife Claire, back in their gated community home, the couple move around in shock. At six o'clock Claire runs their baby daughter's bath as usual and Paul finds her curled up in their daughter's cot weeping. Paul himself spends most of the evening drinking. After Claire goes to bed he picks up her car keys and drives out into the South African night. He takes the road towards one of the nearest townships. Maybe they threw his baby out when they realised she was in the car? Paul scans the verges for his daughter and drives deeper into the township itself. Is she here somewhere? Sleeping perhaps? Where is she? Eventually Paul drives home to Midrand, weighed down by the feeling of abandoning his child. He lets himself back into his home, hangs up the car keys, and struggles to inhale the scent of his missing baby daughter.
In Christopher Radmann's HELD UP we at first appear to be in similar territory to Margie Orford's DADDY'S GIRL; a South African world of gated communities, township poverty, a police force overwhelmed by the escalating crime rate, and the increasingly callous, brutal, and casual nature of the crimes themselves, including the targeting of children for whatever purposes serve the perpetrator. But whereas Orford's book is a thriller centred on finding the criminal and rescuing a victim, Radmann has written an almost forensic study of the effect of the crime itself upon the van Niekirks and their relationships. In particular he follows Paul's absorption into his guilt, shame, and desire for revenge. It is a brutalising absorption that leads him to violence, the ends that justify the means, and the loss of all that he has achieved as a "white middle-class success" in modern South Africa. We follow Paul as he strips himself of all that he appeared to be before the loss of his daughter and comes to rest, devoid of home, possessions, relationship and identity in the township of Soweto. In so doing Radmann also attempts to take us through the changes in contemporary social history of South Africa.
HELD UP is Christopher Radmann's first novel. I found it gripping and moving, reading it almost in one session. He paints a portrait of modern South Africa that has the breadth and detail of one who knows his subject. Radmann writes from his own experiences and those of his friends and family. A South African who now lives in the UK, life in modern South Africa is clearly an issue that he feels deeply about. Even though he left that country in order to secure the safety and stability of his family, it is still a country that he misses passionately. HELD UP certainly packs a punch and is a startlingly accomplished first novel. Perhaps the prose gets a bit purple at the end but that's something I will gladly overlook. The question that I do have is - which direction will Radmann take with a second book? He could be a voice to be reckoned with in crime fiction. But is HELD UP primarily a novel about South Africa structured around one particular crime and its effects? Will Radmann choose to write a mainstream novel next? That's up to him of course. But it would be a loss to quality crime fiction.
Lynn Harvey, England
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