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On the cover of Look magazine, September 1937, is Koringa, “the only female fakir in the world”. A beautiful sorcerer crouched low, her arms are positioned like the jaws of the crocodile she is staring down — only wider, to intimidate the beast. A mark on her forehead glows red like a third eye, suggesting her mesmeric powers. Behold the woman at the centre of Cape Town writer Finuala Dowling’s sixth and most accomplished novel, The Man Who Loved Crocodile Tamers.

Koringa claimed to be from India, orphaned at the age of three and raised by fakirs who taught her magic so that she could hypnotise crocodiles and charm snakes, read minds, or walk on beds of shattered glass. In truth, she was Renée Bernard (1913–1976) a dancer from Bordeaux, who was a member of a travelling circus in France...

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