Reading almost any fiction is, these days, relatively respectable. But there was a time when a certain kind of fiction – accompanied by lurid illustrations – had self-styled moral guardians in a state of apoplexy. Cheap American pulp magazines that traded in bloody murders (usually with sexual motivations) sold in their millions, both in the US and in this country.
The fictitious magazine that gives Yaba Badoe’s perceptive first novel its name is something of a hybrid – a synthesis of the American pulp magazines, and the crime comic-books that grew out of this earlier format and whipped up even more of a furore as the target audience was perceived to be children. In True Murder, two young girls are avid consumers of this pulse-racing material. The 11-year-old Ajuba has been dumped at a boarding school in Devon by her Ghanaian father after the collapse of his marriage (his wife’s instability has been a source of anguish forAjuba). She is trying to deal with both her mother’s breakdown and the residue of her life in Ghana – the evocation of the latter is commanding, among the best things in the novel.
A forceful, charismatic new girl at the school, Polly Venus, mesmerises Ajuba. Polly, with her bold approach and attractive, disorganised family, becomes central to Ajuba’s life, and she introduces her new friend to the visceral excitement of the crime magazine. But there are consequences: dark secrets hiding in Polly’s complicated family come to light. As the family descends into internecine strife, Ajuba tries to make sense of things through the prism of her sensational reading matter, even as a triple tragedy germinates.
Badoe’s background as a documentary film-maker has honed her observational skills, fully utilised in the dextrously rounded characterisations: the brash but naive Polly, the squabbling Venus family, and (most of all) the damaged, likeable Ajuba, through whose eyes we observe the adult drama. Few readers of True Murder will not identify with its out-of-her-depth heroine.
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