True Murder – a striking title that this book more than lives up to.
Ajuba is eleven years old and she has been left at a Devon boarding school by her Ghanaian father, the married couple who run the school appointed as her guardians. She has been through difficult times. Her mother had a breakdown following the death of a child. When her parents’ relationship broke down her mother fled to London with Ajuba, but things quickly fell apart.
Polly Venus is a new girl, the kind of girl born to be the leader of her set. Ajuba soon falls under her spell, and the girls become close friends. And when Polly invites Ajuba to come home with her for the weekend, Ajuba is charmed by the Venus family, and they by her. Soon she is spending all her time with them.
One day the girls find what they think are dead kittens, wrapped in an old coat in the attic of Polly’s new family home. But they have actually found the remains of dead babies. The girls, who have been avidly reading copies of the American magazine, True Murder, attempt to emulate the detectives they have read about and uncover the truth.
Meanwhile, Polly’s parents’ marriage is breaking up, and they are handling it badly. And Ajuba is introduced to the new woman in her father’s life and beginning to deal with the reality of what has happened to her mother.
All of this, together with the girls’ lack of understanding of what is going on in the adult world around them, will lead to more tragedy and change lives irrevocably.
True Murder has a wonderful mix of elements: coming of age, boarding school stories, an old mystery unravelling, family issues and the clash of Ghanaian and British cultures. Every element is masterfully handled and they come together to form an extraordinary whole.
Yaba Badoe is a wonderful storyteller: she writes wonderful rich and evocative prose, weaves her different themes and plot strands together perfectly and slowly but surely builds tension as the story advances.
And she has created a wonderful narrator in Ajuba: she is both charming and intriguing, and she draws you into the story so well that it is nigh impossible to pull away. Indeed all of the characters and relationships are perfectly drawn. You can empathise with them all, and that makes the unfolding tragedy all the more heartbreaking.
True Murder is a dark and disturbing book, and a remarkable debut novel. Do read it!