If anyone dared to say that the burgeoning South African crime fiction scene was light on inventiveness, over-politicised, almost exclusively cornered by Cape writers and lacking in contributions from black female writers, then Angela Makholwa offers a decidedly tart response with her latest novel, Black Widow Society.
Following The 30th Candle, by all accounts not a crime-centred text, Black Widow Society is a return to the crime fiction form Makholwa first appropriated with Red Ink, a promisingly premised if wildly uneven effort undone by elemental tonal and stylistic lapses. What Makholwa taps into this time is a fantastic and all-too-real case of women that have their husbands murdered, often after being abused.
Crime fiction in its local form and flavour has been increasingly recognised by reviewers and scholars for the way that it fulfils a mediating role, managing fears, anxieties and threats that have arisen and continue to arise from the colonial era to apartheid and post-apartheid. Most obviously, then, one could see Makholwa’s novel as both an acknowledgement of real-world fears and anxieties over the female body and male violence, and a creative response in fiction where women are able to speak and fight back.
The novel’s opening introduces us to Tallulah Ntuli, a battered wife struggling to stand up to her abusive husband. Soon after, Makholwa skips ahead twenty years. Together with two like-minded women, Edna Whitehead and Nkosazana Khumalo, Ntuli has very much got her own back, “taking care” of her erstwhile husband and starting the Black Widow Society, which is tasked with helping women to get back a sense of self-worth and dignity by having a hit man, ex-convict Mzwhakhe Khuzwayo, remove their errant husbands from the equation. The Society is then entitled to a portion of what is left behind in the estate. Smart, that.
Of course, for the novel’s plot to have any kind of conflict driver, Khuzwayo must develop second thoughts about the business he’s in and about the kind of manipulative, egotistical women that pay his salary. He does, but his appetite for killing doesn’t take much of a dip.
The three heads of the Society, referred to as The Triumvirate, also come into serious conflict regarding keeping the society functional and anonymous. Let’s just say that things don’t quite go according to plan, and that murder will out, as it always does eventually.
While reading Black Widow Society, and most certainly afterwards, one is struck by the glaring difficulties of writing such a novel, particularly seeing that such a work of fiction inevitably invites comparisons with correlating real-life scenarios. Be too serious and you might be rapped on the knuckles for not having enough fun with the wild premise; offer something too light and insubstantial and you’re not cognisant of the real-life tragedies that many women live day in, day out.
Makholwa starts off well enough. The first few pages are earnest, involvingly written, giving the sense that Makholwa means business. Her title works a charm, there are some wickedly amusing set pieces involving the slick but ultimately hapless hit man Mzwhakhe, and the pace is relentlessly lively, like a speeding bullet.
In this sense, Black Widow Society is comparable to the crime fiction works of Jassy Mackenzie, also set mostly in Johannesburg, and also frenetically paced. The casual reader should observe a fair degree of readability and lightness of touch (again, akin to Mackenzie’s work), which doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing is (sensational) schlock.
Soon, however, the nagging drawbacks of Red Ink start to creep into the mix here: the rapid-fire cuts between scenes and clunky dialogue undo much of the texture and depth; stereotypes and banal clichés start to creep in (such as the ailing white old millionaire still looking for love, and the call all too readily answered by an Afrikaans loslappie with few qualms about excessive coitus to lead to his rapid passing); wildly erratic “voicing” of characters and unnecessary plot twists where it eventually becomes difficult to distinguish between different lines of suspense; and the issue of female main character(s) that are simply not sympathetic or likeable enough to sustain our interest.
Little time is spent offering any penetrating socio-political commentary. The deviousness of much of the actions from women in the novel serves to starve them of our sympathies rather than endear them to us. The novel’s ending teeters on the ridiculous, and its coda sadly rings with inauthenticity. I doubt that Makholwa wanted to write a parody or pastiche here, but there are moments that would vindicate genre snobbery.
On one level one could perhaps argue that the novel’s messy surface and sometimes indistinguishable narrative voices are a kind of meta-commentary on the way that women’s voices have been silenced or reduced to shallow cries for help from an unsympathetic patriarchy. Yet this intellectual response is soon undone when the reader’s frustrations start to mount with a story that doesn’t quite seem to know whether it wants to be taken seriously or make a play for dark satire, a kind of Grand Guignol where the joke is ultimately on the reader for being amused at the horror of killing human beings in a novel that has its reader pay to indulge a twisted fantasy.
The reading of and response to fiction are always subjective. The writing here needed to be more exacting, tougher, grittier, even spare. Instead of individual passages being like the black widow spiders of the title – ferocious, entirely consuming of the reader’s attention – the over-reliance on providing three or four different adjectives in a description plays like the constant buzzing of a hungry mosquito, only eventually drawing blood.
It is often said that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted. I have little doubt that there will be many readers (and yes, they would mostly be female) that applaud Makholwa for writing something that is nothing if not unusual, for taking on a risky subject matter. Yet in a country where more women are the victims of abuse and extreme violence than most would care to admit, Black Widow Society could have made much more of the moral complexities that arise in situations of extreme desperation. The sheer popularity of the genre here means that the novel will garner a broad interest base, and responses to the novel, especially from feminist readers and critics, should be interesting.
Apart from the powerful crime fiction by Margie Orford – works centred on intimate violence perpetrated against especially women and children, and where the representation of said violence brings about its own dilemmas – the rapid rise of and incisive insights found in narratives of “true crime” (Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble, Jonny Steinberg’s The Number, Antony Altbeker’s Fruit of a Poisoned Tree, among many others) lead me to believe that readers do indeed have “reality hunger”. Readers want, and also deserve, works of art able to comfort and disturb with distinction, works that offer more than just escapism, no matter how high-concept it turns out to be. Unfortunately, Black Widow Society neither comforts nor disturbs to full effect.