Rating 3 stars
Knucklebone is a police procedural with a twist set in Johannesburg. Detective Ian Jack has left the South African police force to fulfill his late mother’s dream for him to get an education and not turn into his father. His former colleague Reshma Patel has risen up the ranks in the meantime and is now a Captain. They reconnect one night when Ian is shadowing a security guard as research for his Criminology MA, and the police are also called to the scene of a crime.
The novel explores indigenous African spiritual beliefs, such as veneration of the dead and animism, alongside the trafficking of endangered animals. I’ve seen it described as occult-noir, a genre I didn’t know existed. It’s a term devised by a writer I don’t know to describe his own books, apparently.
On the housebreaking call out that reunites them, Ian and Reshma encounter Njabulo, a young man who has been training to become a sangoma, a traditional healer, but has fallen in with a bad crowd. Eva Lecca, the woman whose house Njabulo and his friend were present at when Ian and Reshma were separately called out, is as sinister as they come.
Writing as N.R. Brodie, the author is a journalist who specialises in researching violent crime, particularly femicide, in South Africa. She has written a number of non-fiction books based on her journalism and research, and two novels – Knucklebone and a sequel, Three Bodies. I think they’re only available in the UK as e-books, and this paperback, that I bought at The Open Book bookshop in Wigtown, might have been left behind by an international traveller who was staying at the bookshop.
Brodie’s knowledge of violent crime is apparent in the plot of the book. Crime is a genre I go to for escapism, because it’s a different world to the one I live in. I enjoy the procedures followed by those investigating the crime. I enjoy the cat and mouse aspect, especially when the antagonist is made likeable. I like the satisfaction of a mystery solved. With Knucklebone, I also enjoyed visiting a country and a city that I don’t know at all, and seeing a society that is very different to my own.
Belief in spirits is everywhere around Ian and Reshma, but hidden in plain view because it isn’t a belief they share. Njabulo wears thin strips of hide on each wrist, but it takes a nurse at the hospital he is admitted to when he suffers a hypoglycaemic attack to explain their significance to Ian and Reshma. She wears a single strip on her left wrist to connect her to her father’s spirit, a sangoma wears strips on each wrist to connect with male and female spirits and be in balance. When Ian and Reshma visit MaRejoice, the sangoma who was training Njabulo, to find out more, she is reluctant to share her wisdom with unbelievers. Later, a police officer guarding Njabulo at the hospital, who also wears a single hide bracelet, is willing to turn a blind eye to MaRejoice performing a ritual over Njabulo while Reshma is out of the room. This officer, known as Tiny, made me a little suspicious, in a ‘you’re not what you seem’ way, and I wasn’t surprised when she reappeared later in the novel.
The ritual produces results that I wasn’t expecting, which is where the twist comes in. It made me wonder about the power of suggestion, and whether some people are more open to the suggestion of a spirit world and witchcraft, curses and possession. I read the ritual scene with an open mouth, it was so strange and compelling. The experience has a lasting impact on Ian, whose dreams about his mother’s death are mixed up with what he thinks he has witnessed in Njabulo’s hospital room.
MaRejoice elicits an address from Njabulo, which Ian visits with his friend Issie. Here they experience the horrors of animal trafficking in its bloody, gory extreme. Brodie writes the scene with just enough detail to get a sense of how horrific it is. The men tasked with butchering the animals, we learn, have to take drugs in order to endure it.
Reshma’s investigation takes her to a Pagan Society stall in a community hall, where she meets wiccan practitioner Myra. I was interested in my gut reaction to Reshma and Myra’s conversation about belief in spirits and witchcraft. It made me anxious, perhaps for the reasons Myra outlines about the co-existence of tradition, superstition and fear. I was raised in a Christian home, taught at Sunday school in an evangelical church to believe that all other religions were false cults, something to fear, a threat to my soul. At the same time, at school and at home, I learnt about witchcraft and paganism through the lenses of the Pendle Witches and Celtic spirituality, which my mum was interested in. Although I no longer count myself as a Christian, that early education in the evangelical church lingers, and it caused a twist in my stomach as I read the conversation between Myra and Reshma in this book.
Reshma is similar to me, in that she was raised in a major religion, in her case Hinduism, but no longer believes in the gods and no longer knows what she believes in. I think part of my anxiety was on Reshma’s behalf, too, as it seemed as though Myra sensed a vulnerability in her. People who believe in something with intensity love to proselytise, whether they are pagan, Christian, astrologers or something else, and intensity of belief is certainly something that makes me anxious.
Myra offers Reshma a Magic 101, explaining the different beliefs in and uses of magic, how they fit with different traditions and can lead to very different outcomes. She isn’t trying to convert Reshma after all. She wants to help her in her case, and in doing so, show that witchcraft isn’t all satanic ritual and blood sacrifice.
There is history between Ian and Reshma that is only revealed after Reshma begins behaving differently towards Ian. She has paid a visit to Eva Lecca at home, to ask her questions about her taxidermy business and the potential connection between the housebreaking, the injuries found on the body of Njabulo’s friend and witchcraft, and then begins behaving slightly recklessly, out of character, and becomes forgetful of very recent events. It reads as though she has been hypnotised, or maybe drugged, and Reshma ends up in a bad place.
Ian’s separate, personal investigation into Reshma’s case also takes him to Eva Lecca, but to her business premises, where he sees jars and boxes being moved around, surrounded by clouds of flies, and is threatened by Lecca. He has his own interest in magic, too, through a comment from a student in his class on the Balkan War and a visit to one of his former lecturers, Anja. She tells him about a PhD student who was researching the use of witchcraft in war, until his mysterious death in a car accident. When he wants to know more, Anja advises him to find a witch to ask. Happenstance leads him to Myra, and it becomes apparent that Ian might be an open door for those of an occult persuasion to push against.
The threads begin to come together in a sequence of scenes that felt slightly camp; Myra’s coven joins forces with MaRejoice to perform an exorcism at a Hindu temple, and it reads a little like a band of superheroes assembling to save the planet, a little like a witchy women’s institute pulling the community together for a good cause. The exorcism and action that followed was a bit silly, as though Brodie was trying to write a cosy occult crime novel, meaning that the scenes lost some of their hold over my attention. I also wondered about Brodie’s appropriation of wicca and indigenous African beliefs as entertainment, particularly in the final scene that read like Brodie wanted to write a police procedural version of The Lord of the Rings. In her acknowledgements, Brodie admits that, although she consulted experts about the spiritual beliefs she makes use of, she also Googled a fair bit, so that, “It is possible that genuine knowledge got mixed with the ersatz”.
As the story nears its conclusion, connections between other characters are revealed, bringing together a network of safari operators, zoo vets, taxidermists, bad witches and disaffected youths, all involved in the trafficking of endangered animals and a larger web of the nasty occult.
Brodie doesn’t get bogged down in explanations or expositions, occasionally to the detriment of the plot, but the action jumps around nicely, and the scenes tend to be short and episodic. It was something a bit different, and I’m glad I picked it up on a whim in The Open Book. There are things in it that I would have liked Brodie to explore in more depth, such as Tiny’s background, and the subject of witchcraft as warcraft, but Knucklebone isn’t that kind of book. It’s an entertainment not an education, and I enjoyed it on that level.