Book Review: “Balthasar’s Gift” by Charlotte Otter
The Official Blurb: Maybe it was an error for crime reporter Maggie Cloete to ignore the call from the AIDS worker, before someone put four bullets in his chest. It is post-apartheid South Africa, at the turn of the century. But there is a threat to the country’s new democracy: HIV/AIDS, which is met with fear and superstition. Now that fear has reached Pietermaritzburg and an AIDS activist is dead. Maggie’s instincts are on red alert. Despite threats from politicians and gangsters, she learns too much about Balthasar’s life and his work at the AIDS Mission to be distant and professional. She is deeply, and dangerously, involved. Balthasar’s Gift continues the tradition of pacy, hard-boiled South African crime fiction.
About the author: Charlotte Otter lives in Germany but used to work as a journalist in South Africa. Fed up with reading crime novels that centred on the naked, mutilated bodies of beautiful young women, her debut novel focuses on a murdered blond gay man, Balthasar, who’s the widower to an AIDS victim and saviour to orphans.
Her novel was first published in Germany under the title Balthasars Vermachtnis and latterly in South Africa in an English language edition. Between 2008, when she started writing her novel, up to signing a publishing deal in 2012, her novel underwent fourteen revisions: three with her agent, three with her co-agent in London and one with her publisher. This just goes to prove that writing isn’t for the fainthearted.
At present, she’s working on her second Maggie Cloete novel, which is an eco-conspiracy that’s named after a rare and threatened butterfly called Karkloof Blue. Nowadays she has to squeeze her writing into two hours daily from 4.30-6.30 am, as she’s working full-time high up the corporate ladder in Information Technology. To quote her, “In my other life, I am a corporate hack, mother of three, reader, traveller, feminist and optimist. I am happily married to the love of my life”.
What I thought of Balthasar’s Gift: Firstly, I just loved Maggie Cloete, the novel’s central protagonist, and was heartily relieved when she was still alive by the last page. Yes, she’s abrasive, stubborn, disobedient, independent-thinking, impatient, rule-breaking, and probably every boss’s idea of a nightmare employee; but everything she does has a good reason and is governed by her demand for justice.
She wants the truth behind Balthasar’s death, which the authorities brush off as caused by a robbery gone wrong but which Maggie believes is related to something that runs far deeper and lies at the heart of what’s rotten about South Africa: its political corruption; its profiteering by a few at the expense of the masses, and its unwillingness to tackle the AIDS epidemic and deal with witch doctor style superstitions that lead to the further spread of the virus. In particular there’s a belief that having sex with a virgin will cure a man of AIDS, which includes sex with small children. So apart from Maggie seeking the truth about Balthasar’s death, she’s also searching for a two-year-old girl who’s disappeared and who the police don’t seem interested in finding.
Balthasar’s Gift is one of those rare novels that achieves a superb balance between being a fast-paced thriller and an informative read. As a reader, I gained deep insight into an area about which I previously knew little. The author’s style of writing is punchy, with her never using an extraneous word, yet managing to paint an extremely vivid picture of South Africa. And for those who enjoy a bit of love/lust interest in a story: Maggie, the motorbike-riding tomboy, is far from immune to the charms of a certain green-eyed street juggler called Spike!
Where you can buy Balthasar’s Gift:
English edition (paperback only)