Book Review: Death on the Limpopo

Death on the LimpopoPHOTO:
Death on the LimpopoPHOTO:

Death on the Limpopo: A Tannie Maria Mystery by Sally Andrew

Umuzi Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House



Tannie Maria lives a calm, quiet life in the Karoo dorpie of Ladismith. She’s the local advice and food guru at the Klein Karoo Gazette, responding to locals’ problems with soft wisdom, and offers heart-warming recipes that will help them with their problems.

She is dating a local detective, Lieutenant Henk Kannemeyer. Her colleague Jessie is dating Warrant Officer Reghardt Snyman. Although Jessie is young and enthusiastic, determined to make her mark with her journalism, the other members of the team are staid. They’re rooted in the small town and are staying put.

And then a stranger arrives. Zabanguni Kani. She’s an investigative journalist at the Daily Maverick and is supposed to be visiting to shake up the Gazette. As is expected, there are mixed reactions to her arrival. Harriet Christie, the owner and editor of the little newspaper, greets her with suspicion. Jessie is thrilled. Tannie Maria seems ambivalent, but then she gets caught up in Zaba’s world of mystery, intrigue and danger.

Zaba’s political exposés have put her in the cross hairs of some very dangerous people. But there’s more going on than exposing the latest corrupt politician – she is on a personal crusade that ends up taking her and Tannie Maria on a cross-country adventure, all the way up to the great Limpopo River. For Tannie Maria, who has never been out of the Karoo, never mind all the way to the confluence of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, this is the adventure of a lifetime. But it’s also more personal than even she realised.

Death on the Limpopo runs a parallel narrative to what’s appearing in the South African media. Although names have been changed, a rather stilted state capture storyline runs through the book.

Thanks to some wonderful character sketches from Sally Andrew, the personalities are vivid and the characters grow on you.

President Bob Mula has made a mess of the country, but is the man tipped to take over from him, Mzwakhe Jika, any better? Who is trying to kill Zaba, and why? Why does the Russian nuclear deal keep coming up?

And what really happened to Tannie Maria’s dad, the anti-apartheid activist Richard Bell, who went off to the Limpopo and never came home?

As Tannie Maria and Zaba search for answers, they realise how sensitive this information is, and how dangerous.

This is also a story about how two very different women from two very different backgrounds find that they have more in common than they realised. It’s also a story about how food can unite people, no matter their backgrounds.

Thanks to some wonderful character sketches from Sally Andrew, the personalities are vivid and the characters grow on you. You can feel Lieutenant Kannemeyer in the room with you when Andrew describes him, and you can hear his voice when he speaks.

You can smell the Limpopo River – great, grey-green and greasy, giving sustenance to the fever trees and baobabs, and offering refuge to the great crocodiles and mighty elephants that roam its banks and swim in its coolness.

The end of the book brings the pièce de résistance – an appendix of Tannie Maria’s recipes: every dish and drink mentioned in the book is given space on these pages. They’re traditional, but with a modern twist, and they’re the perfect ending to a book that has taken you on an adventure, salivating across the pages as you experience the country through Tannie Maria’s eyes.

Part of me wished the book had been packaged a little more eloquently: a hard cover with lots of big, beautiful photographs and a pull-out recipe book with colourful pictures of the dishes. But the other part of me knows that it isn’t really necessary. Andrew has given you the pictures with her words – you already know what the places look like, and what the dishes taste like.

I’ve been to some of the small towns described in the book and have travelled through the Karoo on more than one occasion. The main aim was to get through it as quickly as possible because it’s hot and dry and depressing, and nothing happens there.

But after reading Death on the Limpopo, I feel like I’ve missed out. I’m gripped by a need to return, to explore, to appreciate a little more. Andrew embodies Tannie Maria, and brings her and her world to life in such a tangible way that it makes you feel homesick for this place that you’ve never really explored.

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August 2020

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