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In Shadow, acclaimed writer Carel van der Merwe returns to Paul du Toit, main character of his debut novel No Man’s Land (2007), which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and the M-Net Literary Award.
The reader meets Paul du Toit as a middle-aged, divorced, disgruntled man with a monotonous job (in security) and an unsteady relationship with a much younger Czech girlfriend.
He is leading an almost stereotypical, joyless life of an expat in London who feels unwelcome in his home country.
Not without reason: Du Toit was a covert army operative and events forced him to apply for amnesty from the TRC for the deaths of two anti-apartheid activists. He went to London to find his wife after she had left him and remained there. (You don’t necessarily have to read No Man’s Land, the information is neatly woven into Shadow.)
When a wealthy London businessman offers him an assignment to go to South Africa, he therefore gladly accepts it. Apart from the opportunity to see his country after 10 years, he has some unfinished business to attend to. Little does he know that this seemingly easy task will expose him to the underbelly of a beast.
“For me, a novel is about characters,” the author said in an interview with Dene Smuts. But as in his previous two books, his novel delivers, apart from strong characters, engrossing suspense of a world the author obviously knows very well: the greed of high fliers in the international world of finance, the hunger for power of politicians and how easily this all leads to corruption and serious crime. A world of shadows described so well that you want to bolt the doors.
Paul du Toit has to battle with shadows in his own life as well: the baggage of his political and family past and then the two women in his life. He cannot forget his ex-wife and that hinders the relationship with Monica, his live-in partner in London. He is transient, doesn’t feel “home” anywhere.
The turn his assignment in South Africa takes forces him to a higher level of consciousness. Paul’s eyes are opened to the world he lives in – shadows lurking where he didn’t expect them and light appearing where he only saw murk.
Van der Merwe has first-hand knowledge of what an expat experiences. He spent several years in the UK where he was part of the financial world.
In a recent interview introducing his book, he said that the South Africa of these expats’ memories did not exist any more. Paul du Toit’s baggage is not limited to that of an expat, though. The appeal of the book is the close-to-the-bone reality we all experience on a daily basis.
Shadow has much more than is required of the average suspense novel. It stays with you and makes you think about your own position in this country, your baggage of the past, sorting out a life. This gripping novel is an intelligently written read that will appeal to any South African who has lived consciously for the past decade or two.
In 2010 Van der Merwe won the Eugène Marais prize for Geldwolf (Shark). All three of his books were published in English and Afrikaans simultaneously and he did the translations himself. – Renee Rautenbach