The Imagined Child by Joanne Richards(Picador)

Odette leaves Johannesburg to make a new start in Nagelaten, a small Free State Town. A writer for a popular TV soap, she appears to be searching for a less complicated life. But others think she’s escaping – to a place where she knows no one and won’t have to share her secrets.

Life in Nagelaten isn’t as simple as it seems. The town also holds secrets. Why do people insist there’s no crime, all evidence to the contrary? Who is the strange outcast, whom she feels sorry for, yet doesn’t quite trust? And why will no one tell her his story?

Odette is caught up in two deaths – a baby in the United Kingdom, whom her troubled daughter, Mandy, is suspected of killing – and a brutal farm murder. Both cause her ordered life to unravel, while a new friendship forces her to question the silences of Nagelaten.

Events edge her towards the most courageous act of her life: facing the truth in order to save herself and her daughter.

I started reading The Imagined Child on the bus on my way to work – the 40 minute bus ride just flew by. I really wished that my bus ride was longer, I was so taken by this story that I needed more time to be in its world.

How I wished I could just wheel my chair to a corner in my office so I could just keep reading, but alas – when you must work, you must work.

I could not wait for my bus ride back to Table View so I could get back to The Imagined Child, and even that ride was way too short. Fortunately the weekend was very close, so I spent much of my Saturday relishing the pages of The Imagined Child – which is a marvellous book in that it does not give up all of its secrets at once.

The Imagined Child is a brilliant piece of South African fiction- it has made me wonder why I do not read more South African fiction. I actually think I shall have to start a feature on Bibliophilia showcasing more South African works.

I find myself struggling to tell you about The Imagined Child without giving too much away. There are so many things that I want to tell you about The Imagined Child, but I don’t want to take away any of the experience in the brilliance of the way that it unfurls itself for you. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so this is very hard to write.

The Imagined Child is a brilliant showcase of the immense talent that Jo-Anne Richards has – her writing style here keeps you guessing. I adore the way you are left to follow the dots, the way you see things when Odette does. 

The way you take the same cues from social interactions as she does, and the way you are shocked when you discover things. Most especially the way you almost intuitively feel the guilt, the emotions that bubble under the surface of the calm, collected, together façade that Odette puts up.

Most of all, the way that you are simultaneously finding things out about the town of Nagelaten and its citizens, but also the way that you feel that there is something that does not quite add up about Odette and the way she doesn’t want to talk about what is wrong with Mandy.

The whole hide, and reveal style of her writing is truly brilliant. Also the way that she works on a story line for the soap that she writes for that allows her to work through the what ifs of her situation with Mandy.

I was reminded quite a lot of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex whilst reading The Imagined Child – whilst not as long or complex as Middlesex, The Imagined Child is an Odyssey of sorts, and much like Middlesex, we are shown how genetic manipulations, and the actions of our parents, and even their parents have an impact on the person we become – not only when we are born, but in the way that we are raised.

I was also reminded of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in the way that Odette tried to fix things by telling, and sort of revealing the truth. Also, in the way that when we take situations out of context because we are wrongfully witnessing them they make us do things that we end up regretting, and will never be able to fix.

The Imagined Child is exceptional in the way that it explores small town life – the role of the church and the way that outsiders are viewed, and not entirely let in.

The way that the Afrikaans community people accommodate the English speaking folk and the small grammar mistakes that fall into conversations. Jo-Anne really got it right – I could relate quite easily being from a small town in the Karoo myself.

On a completely unrelated note, I found it rather awesome that I know someone who knows Jo-Anne Richards – and who was thanked in the acknowledgements. Really small world, when you think of it – thanking Monty Roodt – my favourite Sociology lecturer from Rhodes for the use of his house.

If you are looking for a great local book that you can relate to, that will keep you thrilled to the very end, go and get yourself a copy of The Imagined Child – this is South African Fiction at its very best.

Read more of Terri's reviews on her book blog.

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