The last hangman in Zimbabwe retired in 2004, but since the death penalty seemed on the verge of abolition, there was no real effort to hire a new one.
Suddenly, however, top officials are desperately seeking a new candidate, though their selection criteria are mysterious. Abel Muranda, an honorable and ethical man from a tiny rural village, with a family in danger of starvation, applies for the job for the sake of its good salary and health care, but what hidden risks will it entail? Meanwhile, a particular sort of flame lily has been biologically engineered to seek out corpses, particularly human corpses, for its nourishment, and this combines with the traditional belief in ngozi, the vengeful spirits of the murdered, to set off panic in the ranks of powerful men with dangerous secrets to hide.
Among those caught up in this shadowy war are a genius lawyer so misanthropic that he never leaves his office, a prostitute in love with the one man she can’t have, an Englishman whose wife must compete with his obsessive desire to design the perfect gallows, and a magistrate whose honest determination to follow the law saddles him with the nickname, “The Hanging Judge,” among a host of other bizarre and fascinating characters. Can the friends Abel has made in his brief time in the city rescue him from his own determination to get this job? Who is the mysterious genius behind the carnivorous flowers, and why has he loosed them on the world? And what will happen when the secretive “Bakers” complete their recipe?
This is a work of completely bizarre genius. The author has an almost Wodehousian gift with words, decorating his pages with phrases that can make the reader laugh out loud, question long-held assumptions about reality, or send a chill up the spine with just a few deft descriptive touches. Some of the characters, and the situations they find themselves in, can be completely off-the-wall, but the author’s writing ability carefully makes them almost plausible, even natural.
The plot wanders from person to person, place to place, adding more dimensions to the story, without ever becoming dull or slow. The mystery unfolds itself elegantly, revealing itself through different perspectives, until the whole tapestry is unveiled in all its color and depth. Subtle details are not neglected, and every one of them reveals or reflects something vital. The result leaves the reader fascinated, turning page after page just to see what could possibly happen next, until the book is finished and the reader looks up, startled, to find that hours have gone by without being noticed.
There are occasional problems with the format – the news articles, for example, are presented in a paler grey type which is sometimes hard on the eyes. Additionally, some aspects of the plot are not for the squeamish, or those easily disturbed by graphic descriptions. But these are very minor issues.
This is a delightful book for those who enjoy having their perspectives stretched, who take delight in the weird and idiosyncratic, and who love watching a master author do breathtaking juggling acts with the English language.
Reviewed by Catherine Langrehr for IndieReader