Monday, November 18, 2013

266. True Murder by Yaba Badoe

Divorce and separation have become part of the natural phases of family life in the Twenty-first Century. It is almost as if any couple on the verge of marriage know that the next phase of this knot-tying ceremony will be the extrication of the one from the other, and are prepared for it. It is as commonplace as marriage itself. However, whereas divorce, usually but not always, satisfies the wishes of the two consenting adults, its effects on the children are hardly examined. The children who had nothing to do with the choices their parents made become their ultimate victims. Their views are hardly sought or considered in the making of the divorce-separation decision. Rather, all they are told, to assuage its psychological impact, is that limp and trite phrase 'sometimes things just don't work between people'. And with this egocentric statement, delivered with trembling voice by each of the parents at different times, they presume their work done, believing that with this the child will survive the tides. Parents seeking their self-interest at the expense of their children and the effects this has on the children are what Yaba Badoe's True Murder (Vintage, 2009; 262) addresses. It is a story about the lives of two pre-teen girls from such homes, with a layer of mystery.

Ajuba Benson's mother had emigrated to London, from Ghana, with her daughter after her husband separated from her. This separation and emigration resulted from a weird mixture of dreams, stillbirths and miscarriages. In London, Mrs Benson sought to start life anew. However, things worked out differently and Ajuba had to live with her father, Michael Benson, who had to put the eleven-year old in a boarding school at Exe to enable him work in Rome. Polly Venus was no different. Her cosmopolitan American parents - Peter and Isobel - had moved to London and had bought a house - Graylings - near Exe. Consequently, she had been enrolled there. On the first day the two - Ajuba and Polly - met, they were bound to be best friends forever. Together with Beth, they formed an alliance that would see them brave misfortunes, including a near-death incident which occurred when, in a elaborate plan mapped out by Polly, they sought to act some of the stories in Polly's True Murder series they had been reading.

Without a family to spend her weekends and holidays with, Ajuba's friendship with Polly was set to solidify when she was invited to spend her holidays at Graylings. The initial conviviality among the members of Venus household was promising and Ajuba thought she had found the solace she had been yearning for. However, it was not long before the superficiality of the initial wide-smiles cum hugs dissipated. The Venuses were tearing themselves apart: Peter was bent on leaving Isobel; Isobel was tirelessly on holding on to him; Polly was on her father's side and would go to any length to hurt her mother; Theo, Polly's elder brother, was unconcerned of the happenings in the family, choosing rather to spend time with his girlfriend Sylvie. It was within this chaotic, emotionally unbalanced family that an already unstable Ajuba was thrust.

During one of such holidays, Ajuba, Beth, and Polly, playing in the attic of Graylings, discovered a package the previous owner - the late Miss Fielding - had left in one of her clothes. In the package were tiny bones, which the trio had initially conceived as those of kittens. The detectives they invited to investigate their little finding - following the narratives in their series - concluded that their specimens were more than kitten bones. It was something else. Overnight the three became local heroines. But as True Murder addicts, they were not going to leave the entire investigation to the detectives. They were going to conduct parallel investigation into the matter, beginning with visits to Miss Edith Butterworth - Miss Fielding's closest friend who, until the latter's death, lived with her at Graylings.

Yaba Badoe's story is filled with egoistic adults and stubborn children. One cannot but abhor and pity the children in equal measure - pitying them for what they had to go through on their own; and abhor them for who they were, what they did and how they turned out, sometimes intentionally. Or may be not. Polly was not the average preteen girl any mother could contain, tolerate, or love. She was systematically awful and wicked. Her outrageous and repugnant behaviour would overwhelm even the rights' activists and their loyal psychologist friends in the West. Even in such countries, where children were given an abundant room to operate and behave, Polly would be difficult to accommodate. She maltreated, bitterly insulted, and ferociously hated her mother, while openly courting her father's love and siding with him on every issue against her mother. She did this so openly, so blatantly and with obvious malice that Isobel returned her favour in an almost equal measure. Polly threw solid objects at her mother and refused everything she asked of her. Polly perhaps took her father's side as a survival strategy, and Peter, all too happy to have someone to associate with in those tensed post-quarrel periods, was not very eager to contradict her. Instead, he enjoyed it. One could tell Polly's behaviour was a natural emotional consequence of the strain the family was going through, for beneath this open rebellion, hard as a tortoise shell, was a softness that connected with Isobel. And even though mother and daughter were almost always at each other's throat, they did relate positively once in a while, and on those few occasions they did, the love was palpable. However, regardless of Polly's behaviour, Ajuba loved her unreservedly, even when she completely and silently disagreed with her some of them and was sometimes astounded by her audacity to disobey adults.

Ajuba, on the other hand, was in dissonance with herself. She seemed to understand everybody's misdeed but her father's. She never recognised the disconnect between her hatred for her father - for leaving her mother, and her love for Peter - who was also divorcing his wife. Ajuba loved Peter and wished he was her father. She understood and sympathised with him and wished he would be happy. Yet, she was not interested in her father's happiness. She hated the Senegalese woman he was planning to marry, though she did not flinch when she heard that Peter had a fling relationship with the mother of one of their school friends, Maria. In Isobel, she saw her mother, who suffered similarly, and loved her accordingly.

These inconsistencies - choosing and picking - made it difficult to trust Ajuba as a narrator, for she filtered everything through a prejudiced mind. This hatred for her father sharply contrasted her general behaviour, which was one of love. This dissonce might have resulted from her mother's advice to never trust her father, who, she said, would at a point in the future try to poison her mind against her and take Ajuba away from her. Thus, her lack of paternal love for Michael and her hatred towards his wife - Nina - could be her subconscious's interpretation of this advice and a decision she took a younger age. When Mrs Benson referred to everybody as witch and accused Michael of adultery, he deserted the family at that moment of need, leaving Ajuba to cater for her sick mother. This hurt young Ajuba that she swore never to forgive him.
He left her to me. And for that I can never forgive him. [30]
However, Ajuba's story of her mother's breakdown and separation from her husband was itself doubtful in parts. The following discussion ensued after Polly, speaking on Peter's infidelity, said adultery hurts:
Yes, some fathers are like that, ... It drives my mother crazy. Does Isobel go crazy as well?'
Polly nodded: 'Yeah. She doesn't understand Peter like I do.
'Just like my mother.'
'She hates it it when Pa has girlfriends. She says some men can't help themselves. Then she cries, and when she stops crying, she says they're weak - like children.' [104]
The above suggests that Michael's adulterous behaviour led to Ajuba's mother's breakdown, resulting in the separation. However, earlier, Ajuba had said that her mother's accusation of her father's adultery was all made up; that her father was not having an extramarital affair. She had said
My father must have realised that his marriage wasn't going to survive. He was biding his time, waiting for the right moment to leave. But there's never a good time to leave a grief-stricken wife. So, instead of abandoning us, Pa did the next best thing: he avoided my mother as much as possible, staying away for days on end. Dismissing her accusations of infidelity, he claimed she was imagining things; he was staying overnight with relatives. Since Mama wouldn't let them visit us, he was spending time with them for a change. Of course there wasn't another woman! Mama was being neurotic, overwrought. [30]
Ajuba's mother's miscarriages and stillbirths resulting in the Bensons' inability to have more children made her consider the relatives of both families as witches and wizards, set on destroying her family. This misfortune led to her breakdown. Perhaps, this could be Ajuba's own way of supporting her friend and showing solidarity, as was visible in other sections as well.

There were elements of surrealism especially in relation to Ajuba, as a character, which bordered on clairvoyance. She could see things before they happen and past events sometimes revealed themselves to her. Whether this was true or that her imaginative mind conceived them post-facto, was difficult to tell. This contributed to the distrust of Ajuba as a narrator. For instance, in her narrative, she saw Polly's death before it happened and when it did she saw how it happened. Could not this foresight be a trick her mind played on the events she witnessed? Could she not have actually seen them happen? Could not she be misinterpreting her apprehensions as clairvoyance? Further, she saw how the bones came to be in Miss Fielding's attic and Isobel's brutal reaction to Peter's departure.

Yaba Badoe's examination of the mind of these children is excellent, revealing, and interesting. The story is fantastic. Her description of life at the boarding house was engaging and relatable: the white lies told to impress friends; the over simplification of issues hardly understood; the I-am-better-than-you attitude; the strange things said to back an opinion and the defence mounted when they are challenged; the friendships and quarrels were all present and perfectly handled . The lives of the adults were also well-described to such an extent that the reader could feel the pangs of pain, the hurt, and sometimes the stupidity exuding from the pages. The book really did come alive.

However, the period between the inception of an idea to the point of revelation - or the suspense lag - is too long and caused a snag in the story especially when it turned out to be not very mysterious; it created an anti-climactic feeling. The writer seemed to have held back a lot, preventing herself from fully exploding into the Stephen King kind of mystery and spookiness. The book had the promise to blossom into one huge spine-chilling story, but when it did not, I felt let down. The discovery of the bones in the attic which was presumed to a kitten's but which turned out to be something more significant than that could have become something stupendous. The way the Venuses part of the story ended - though shattering - could have been explosive. Or even Ajuba and her father's wife. In the end, we were only made to imagine what she really did with that metallic comb. The goosebumps could have been complete if the author had not withheld from the macabre, because excellent glimpses of them were found throughout the story: the True Murder serials they were reading, the acting of the stories in them, the visits to Edith, and more. Perhaps as an ex-psychological thriller fan, I expected too much. 

This is an interesting book. Yaba Badoe, in one single book, has provided a lot for both the young and the old; each will come out with a different lesson. Young Adults might like the mystery more, but adults, especially parents, will anlayse the effects of their decisions on their children. They will learn that they become the choices they make and so do their children. A highly recommended book.
About the author: Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker, producer and writer. A graduate of King's College Cambridge, she worked as a civil servant in Ghana before becoming a General Trainee with the BBC. She has taught in Spain and Jamaica and has worked as a producer and director making documentaries for the main terrestrial channels in Britain and the University of Ghana in Accra. Her short stories have been published in Critical Quarterly an in African Love Stories: an Anthology edited by Ama Ata Aidoo. In 2009, her first novel, True Murder was published by Johnathan Cape. Her TV credits include: Black and White, a ground-breaking investigation into race and racism in Bristol, using hidden video cameras for BBC1; I Want Your Sex, for Channel 4 and a six-part series, Voluntary Service Overseas, for ITV. In 2003, she directed a one-hour documentary about the life and work of Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, for BBC4. Her film, The Witches of Gambaga (Fadoa Films, 2010), won the 2010 Best Documentary Award at the Black International Film Festival and 2nd Prize, Documentaries at FESPACO 2011. [Sources: Here and Here]


  1. Very complete review, I am glad that you read and enjoy it.

  2. In depth review, Nana. I must read this book!

  3. I love unreliable narrators. You simply don't know what to make of their statements even. I'm glad you read and reviewed this book so thoroughly. I'm looking forward to Yaba Badoe's next book.

  4. Dear Nana, thank you for such an excellent review of my novel 'True Murder'. I'm pleased that overall you enjoyed it and found so much to write about. Thank you!


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