As a child, Ali Neuman narrowly escaped being murdered by Inkatha, a militant political party at war with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. His father and brother were not so lucky. Only he and his mother survived the carnage of those years. But as with many survivors, the psychological scars remain. Ali has been marked, indelibly, by the brutality of those years, and healing only comes at a price.
Unbelievably violent, amazingly confrontational, searingly honest and profoundly emotional, ZULU is one of those books that you may have to read through spread fingers, but it is almost impossible to put this book down until it screeches to an ending that will make you shudder.
This is noir, critical, brutal writing at it's absolute best. The "Zulu" of the title refers not so much to the tribe as a whole, but to Cape Town homicide captain Ali Neuman. Heading up the investigation into the death of a young woman whose body is found with a crushed skull, Neuman accepts that his job must sometimes mean that he's put in difficult situations. His profound belief in the job he does comes from his childhood - when he was a young boy he was forced to watch the ritualised murders of his father and brother. He grew up with an overwhelming desire to put an end to the lawlessness that plagues his country. Regardless of other people's reactions to him or the colour of his skin.
There's nothing particularly uncommon about the idea that a central protagonist is fighting his own demons, or even battling against unsympathetic or antagonist authorities. What is different in the portrayal of these elements in ZULU is the context. Neuman's demons are the violent murders of his brother and father; the political complications of South African society; the appalling violence and disadvantage of the townships; attacks on his elderly mother. Murder rates that are simply breathtaking; AIDS; desperation; the disregard for life - it's all laid bare, raw and yet, there's also some sense of poignancy. There's love, affection, regard and concern for others. There's even humour and acceptance. Put all of that into a book that is written with a cynical, forthright style that is absolutely no holds barred. Then add more ways of killing and maiming and hurting people than even in your worst moments you couldn't have dreamed up and build the action and the reader's interest into a really interesting and likeable central protagonist. Then tear the rule book up and add a twist at the end that will just blow some readers out of the water, and what you've got is an intelligent, thought-provoking, frightening, fascinating and unputdownable book about a society that is still dealing with the impacts of Apartheid and profound societal upheaval.
ZULU isn't a book that is going to do much for the South African tourism industry, but it is a book that simply took my breath away.