Nechama Brodie has not seen a tokoloshe — but her description of one emerging from the inert figure of a bloated young man on a hospital bed is so vivid that the reader may be inclined to doubt that statement.
In her sixth book — and first novel — sangomas, witches, herbalists and spirits emerge from the shadowy world of Joburg’s underbelly. Brodie’s book Knucklebone should not be read in the dark by readers whose imaginations are half as potent as the author’s.
At the heart of this detective story are two characters who have never been remotely involved in the world of spirits and those who seemingly interact with them on earth.
Ian Jack, a disillusioned former police officer, finds himself in the hunt for a killer with Capt Reshma Patel, a colleague from his old life who has been sent to investigate a routine housebreaking gone bad.
Naturally there’s a body up front in true detective style and then more bodies — not only human ones, but many animal ones too. This is also a story about poaching and trafficked body parts.
Njabulo Muholi, the friend and accomplice of the slain teenager who was killed breaking into a house in leafy Joburg suburbia, begins convulsing and is rushed to hospital. A nursing sister tells Jack that no medical treatment will help because Muholi is a sangoma and the spirits will decide his future.
As the police officers delve deeper into the case, they learn the teen’s death was not caused by a bullet but by knife cuts made earlier. Their hunt for the killer takes them to Alexandra, one of the oldest and most neglected townships in SA.
They meet sangoma MaRejoice, who is horrified when they show her a monkey’s paw they had discovered in Muholi’s bag. It was cruelly severed while the creature was still alive. The trail leads them to Head Hunters, a taxidermy business run from a hangar-type building beyond Lanseria, where the manager is a Romanian woman who had shot and killed Muholi’s friend.
In one of the most horrendous and evocative scenes in the novel, Jack goes to a warehouse south of Joburg’s now gentrified in-place, Maboneng. The cavernous interior is filled with blood-dripping dead animals, some of them still with fur on their bodies.
Knucklebone features witches and a coven, a pagan society and trips to the Joburg Zoo to meet a veterinarian.
Despite the gore and spirits, the novel is laced with wit and lighthearted moments and the pace of the chase will keep you up through a brightly lit night.
This novel is a far cry from Brodie’s other books, which include a memoir on the former head of the commercial crimes unit for the National Prosecuting Authority, Glynnis Breytenbach, now a DA MP.
Brodie also wrote I Ran for My Life, the memoir of kwaito singer and recovered drug addict Kabelo Mabalane. He’s now completed 10 Comrades marathons, Brodie says. She has written remarkably lively books on Cape Town and Joburg, with the latter having sold 10,000 copies — a bestseller.
She has changed more than genres. In moving from fact to fiction she’s also changed her authorial name, using only her initials for this novel.
"I wanted to feel free from fact writing, to start anew," the fast-talking, articulate author, journalist and head of training and research at TRI Facts, part of the independent fact-checking agency Africa Check, explains.
"I wanted to have some fun."
The fun has been five years of research, meeting sangomas, consulting one who read her manuscript to check it for accuracy and visiting Faraday market, where baboon and warthog skulls, animal skins and strange-looking objects in jars are laid out in stalls.
"I like a bit of dark stuff in books," says Brodie, whose first published story featured a Gollum (hobbit) in Joburg.
Being a researcher, she delved deeply into all aspects of African traditional healing and beliefs, and western types of magic and witches.
She says white South Africans have stereotypical views of sangomas. "They tend to believe they’re old and male and that female sangomas are witches, which is really dangerous: witches get killed here."
Brodie stresses sangomas today are young, urban, dynamic "and really smart women". She worked with three, one of whom she found online.
"The term witchdoctor is offensive … old fashioned, which made things difficult for me because I’d included one in the book. But after discussions with sangomas I cut it out," she says.
Brodie explains that witches are perceived completely differently in white and westernised society, where they are accepted and play different roles from the stereotyped African witches. She does not believe in spirits but points out that magic, the occult and witchcraft have down the ages been used in war, by political leaders and by the power hungry. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, and the wives of other leaders paid vast sums of money for spiritualists to call up greater powers for their men, she says.
She also discusses Russia’s Romanov family, Rasputin and Lady Macbeth while she explains widespread mysticism, the occult and spiritualism.
Brodie grew up reading ghost, vampire and dragon stories, "so I’ve always been open to thinking such things exist. It would be a horrid world if there were no dragons." But she has never consulted a psychic, doesn’t believe in homeopathy or Reiki, "and I wouldn’t ask someone to pray my cancer away, I would see a doctor".
Yet she believes it’s auspicious when she sees a praying mantis, "because in African tradition they’re associated with wise spirits and ancestors. "I had four in my house when this book was published."
Brodie takes issue with the belief that the East is the main market for animal trafficking, "whereas Europe is huge. We have a stereotypical view that Asian men wanting sexual kicks drive demand. It’s not true."
She adds provocatively that in Knucklebone, "people from Europe are doing what they’ve done for centuries — coming to Africa, stealing our stuff and making money from it."
Knucklebone will make you shiver as it opens up a fascinating spiritual world that flourishes beneath our unseeing eyes.