‘A literary political thriller and a case-study in family trauma and betrayal’ – Call It Dog by Marli Roode

cidmrA literary political thriller and a case-study in family trauma and betrayal, Roode’s début is both ambitious and assured. It’s also something of a naysayer for those that claim the creative writing postgrad route is a training ground for Carver-lite clones. Call It Dog is visceral and brutal and unrelenting, and something of an education in South African politics.

Jo Hartslief is a SA ex-pat, raised in the UK by her grandmother since her mother’s death in a road accident when Jo was a kid. Returning in 2010, age 23, as a journalist, she gets caught up in a series of violent riots in Alexandra, before answering a phone call from her estranged father, Nico. It turns out that Nico—a contender for the Worst Father in Fiction title—is on the run: he’s wanted for the murder of Vusi Silongo, a black man who was tortured and killed decades ago by a group of Afrikaans soldiers. Nico claims he was coerced into witnessing the murder by an ex-army enemy, and now he’s being framed. He wants Jo’s help to clear his name. Torn between her abhorrence of her father’s politics and her longing to have a relationship with him, Jo agrees—and the two set out on a road-trip that brings her past flooding back and sets her future off-course.

No spoilers, of course, but Nico’s story isn’t exactly watertight, and this is no clear tale of pity, redemption and penance. Jo’s put through the emotional ringer as she has to face up to her father’s actions (past and present) and those of his ex-colleagues. Roode’s also thrown Vusi’s children into the mix, a pair who’ve chosen different political sides in present-day South African conflicts (Paul’s a leading figure in the ANC, and his sister is in the AbM (the shack-dwellers’ movement), fighting for refugees’ rights. Jo’s own career as a journalism—distant, allegedly objective and uninvolved—is queried by Nico in light of her decision to stay abroad rather than confront the wrings of her native country head-on. If there is a message here (aside from the obvious one that racism and apartheid are bad), it’s that personal and political motivations aren’t always segregated and that very few people aren’t, in some way, culpable for an act of evil.

Politically, then, it’s full-on, and Roode doesn’t dumb it down for foreigners. Jo’s ex-pat status means we get a few in-text explanations, but otherwise it’s up to the reader (as it should be) to get his/her bearings on the history and allegiances that are key to a large part of the text. That means it’s not an easy read, content-wise, and I haven’t even mentioned the gore. Stylistically, though, it’s not too complex, though concerned enough with characterisation and lyrical detail to get the literary tag. The chronology, though pretty back and forth, is straightforward enough to follow, and the present-tense narration (which perhaps could be laid at the doorstep of the MA culture) is transparent and pacy. The road-trip clue-hunting mission that takes up a good half of the book, as well as the conspiracy theories and political intrigue, puts it squarely in the thriller camp: will Nico get caught? Will Jo clear his name in time? Will Nico double-cross Jo? Etc.. But there’s also the story of Karen, Jo’s mother, and her relationship with Nico; the father and daughter relationship (definitely NOT an easy read); the inevitable love interest; and the rapid-fire dialogue between Jo and pretty much everybody else, all of which lighten the load and ease the plot tension. If I were to criticise it, I’d say Roode has a tendency to show more than she tells. Not a scathing critique, of course, but a little less conversation and a little more summary would have varied the scenes and given what dramatic scenes remained more of a memorable edge. More specifically, I’d say that the book is overly reliant on dialogue, meaning that conversations often go on in something approximating real-time, and because most of the plot developments result from conversations, that’s a lot of talking. It’s not a short book, besides, and a tighter edit wouldn’t have gone astray.

Any Cop?: Yes. A confidant and enthralling début, albeit not one I’d recommend to the more squeamish reader. It’s good to read about contemporary South Africa, particularly from a writer who doesn’t shy away from moral ambiguity and political debate. Roode is one to keep an eye on.

Frances Johnson


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