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Jacqui L'Ange

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Exhume the Past: A Review of Margie Orford’s Gallows Hill

Gallows HillMargie Orford has again delivered a tightly plotted thriller with solid political credentials.

It’s got the snappy dialogue and the meticulous forensic detail you’ve come to expect from a Clare Hart thriller. But it’s also got something different.

Instead of a woman or a child in mortal danger with a relentlessly ticking clock, we have a body that’s been dead for 23 years – a cold case that connects apartheid horrors to present-day political profligacy.

The body is unearthed at Gallows Hill, near the Green Point traffic centre, where Cape Town’s notorious gibbets once stood. Two centuries ago the unfortunates hanged there were left to sink into the soft sands beneath the gallows, forgotten and untended.

Their bones are exposed when excavation begins for a development near the Waterfront.

The 200-year-old remains, possibly those of slaves, ignite imagination – and deep-rooted grievances. Fat cats’ luxury apartments are put on hold, pending due process.

Clare is a film-maker and investigative profiler. She is ostensibly on site to film a documentary on slavery. But a newer body is different; the young woman crammed into a tiny coffin under a concrete foundation slab is a case for police, not anthropologists.

Clare believes she can piece together the woman’s past. She can’t know that this wooden box will unleash more troubles than Pandora’s box. Her search will lead from the world of rarefied high art to that scarcely redeemed low life.

And to a confrontation with “Hond”, a Cape Flats gangster cleaned up just enough to associate with tenderpreneurs.

But the real villain is the system that has failed its people.

Between February 1988 and February this year, South Africa has swung on a pendulum from repressive apartheid regime through land of hopeful freedom.

Now it’s snagged on a knot of crime, corruption and cronyism.

There is a weary cynicism in the way all the principals regard the state of their nation. Top cop (and Hart’s chief love interest) Riedwaan Faizal bemoans a South Africa where you watch your taxes being squandered, but are lucky to have a job that earns enough to pay tax.

He sends his partner in crime-fighting, Rita Mkhize, to Mpumalanga, where violence and tragedy await.

Clare and Riedwaan’s relationship has deepened, but is complicated by spectres from the past; not least the re-emergence of Clare’s old flame, cameraman Pedro da Silva.

Orford has a knack for revealing hidden parts of Cape Town – not just the criminal underbelly, but raw, elemental places under its physical surface. In Like Clockwork it was the cavernous culverts under Sea Point’s promenade; in this fourth book it is a dank dungeon under the Slave Lodge, once the Women’s Quarters, where company slaves were kept overnight, and where the sea still reaches up right under Adderley Street.

The author treats her characters like a lepidopterist pins specimens to a board – precisely, delicately.

Still, the real good guys emerge quietly; they are the indigent, the homeless, the voiceless. They are the bergies sharing a papsak on a bench outside parliament. They represent another kind of struggle survivor in a book that spans the spectrum between right and wrong

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