This review was published by Frank Rumpel in CulturMag on November 7, 2015.
More than just a butterfly
From an endangered species of butterfly to the crimes of the Apartheid period: this is the arc spanned with ease in the second novel by South African author Charlotte Otter, now living for some years in Germany. She links the two topics via a third: the destruction of native forests and savannas by the timber and paper industry cultivating large plantations with fast-growing trees such as pine and eucalyptus.
In the midst of the action is Charlotte Otter’s dynamic protagonist Maggie Cloete. The former police reporter had for ten years turned her back on Pietermaritzburg, a city of 220,000 inhabitants in the easterly province of Kwa Zulu Natal (providing an interesting jump in time to the present between the first and second novels), spending time in Berlin and Jo’burg. But she’s now returned and is back working for the Gazette, enabling her to look after her brother, Christo. He had been in a psychiatric unit for many years due to post-traumatic stress disorder and is now attempting to live in the outside world.
Near Pietermaritzburg, paper company Sentinel is planning to strip the woodland. Conservationists are protesting because the forest is home to one of the last populations of the native Karkloof Blue butterfly. The company nevertheless begins cutting down the trees, until a grave with seven skeletons is found on the site. It is discovered that the grave originates from Apartheid times, and the bodies are most likely those of seven local youths connected to Umkhonto we Sizme (the militarised arm of the ANC) who disappeared without a trace at the end of the Eighties following an attack on an electricity plant. A massive story, but Maggie is gagged by her boss; the newspaper buys its paper supplies from Sentinel.
A whole raft of current issues is woven together by Charlotte Otter to create a compelling story full of action, even if some of the plot twists again seem a little casual in this second novel. But Otter redeems herself for this with a strong, multifaceted female protagonist who never allows a good story to get away from her, no matter how many people’s toes she has to tread on to do so. And along the way she is continually observing everyday societal imbalances, from which the only relief is found in sarcasm. Such as men in management positions. “Where did all these bespectacled suits come from? Can you hire them from casting agencies? Experience in imitating facial expressions desirable.”
Like her debut, this latest novel has been published first in the German translation and subsequently launched on the South African market. Along the way it tells of crimes from the Apartheid period that are far from being resolved, of the extended reach of those who were in charge at the time, of large-scale environmental destruction, of unscrupulous profit interests and of press freedom on the verge of breaking down due to economic conflicts of interest in an increasingly narrow marketplace. A strong, committed crime novel in which Charlotte Otter puts the young democracy of South Africa under the microscope with multiple deeply penetrating insights into its society.