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Comfort reading: Michele Magwood reviews Sally Andrew’s debut novel, Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery

Sally Andrew’s sleuth, a rusk-baking Karoo tannie, promises to be a global hit. By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria MysteryRecipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery
Sally Andrew (Umuzi)
***** (5 stars)

The timing of this charming new novel couldn’t be more propitious. At the end of a dismal year in South Africa, Recipes for Love and Murder slipped onto the shelves, leavening the beaten, bruised mood, a story redolent of community, of landscape, of friendship, of food. It is comfort reading.

Sally Andrew is in Muizenberg when we speak, frantically trying to finish the edit on the second book in what is likely to become a series. “It’s interesting you say that,” she says, “because when I started writing it I was quite burned out working as an environmental activist. I wanted to do something just for pleasure, to make me feel good.”

Andrew and her artist partner split their time between Muizenberg and the Klein Karoo, the setting for Recipes for Love and Murder. Here we find Tannie Maria, homely and veldskoen-shod, watching over her chickens and vegetable patch from her farmhouse stoep. When she’s asked to change her cookery column in the Klein Karoo Gazette into an Agony Aunt page instead, she finds prescribing recipes alongside homespun wisdom works a treat: “Dear Lucy, In the end what matters most is love and food. Without them you go hungry.”

When she receives a letter from a woman whose husband is abusing her, it plunges her back into the horror of her own marriage, which she escaped only when her brutal husband died. She writes back to the woman, advising her to leave him, “You can do better than I did. You can save your heart.” But when the woman is murdered, Tannie Maria sets about her own investigation.

It’s no wonder that Recipes has been likened to Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe series: in fact he provides a fulsome “shout” for it on the cover. But this book is darker. Andrew cuts the cosiness with the acid sapor of spousal abuse, homophobia, the PTSD of ex-servicemen, the threat of fracking.

And then there’s the food. Mma Ramotswe seems to exist solely on pumpkin stew and bush tea, whereas Tannie Maria bakes trays and trays of beskuit, munches marmalade and bacon sandwiches, stuffs bulging vetkoek with curried mince and envies the chicken pies of her friend Tannie Kuruman. She chats away to her rusks, informs her morning tea about her plans for the day, and questions a potato salad about the nature of love.

“Food is good company,” she reflects. “but it doesn’t answer back, not in words anyway. Maybe that is one of the reasons why it is good company.”

You’d assume that Andrew is an accomplished cook herself. “I’m not!” She peals with laughter. “I’ve never read a recipe book before now, I just throw things together. So I had to do a lot of research.” She found the people in her community who make the best bobotie, the best koeksusters, the best tamatiebredie, and what readers, especially international ones, are loving is that she has included the recipes at the end of the book.

It is astonishing that a low-key, idiom-heavy, obscurely located story could have global appeal, but it does. The buzz around the book started when a bidding war broke out for it at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Ace agent Isobel Dixon, herself a Karoo native, whipped up so much interest in the manuscript that she was fielding six-figure pre-emptive bids from international publishers before it even went to auction. As well as South Africa it is also being published in the US, UK, Australia, and Canada, with 11 other editions in foreign languages, and counting.

A Chinese reader might puzzle over a roast leg of lamb with pampoen, or a Swedish reader the strange landscape of gwarrie trees, but there is no doubt the book has universal appeal. The secret, perhaps, is the nostalgia for connectedness, for community, for low-tech, simple living. And for home-cooked food. Things that transcend borders. Comfort.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

 
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Image credit: Bowen Boshier

 

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