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Tuesday, September 20, 2022


“… This book is more than just a dark drama. It raises questions that are very pertinent in today’s society and handles them with considerable skill and sensitivity.” (Review by Margaret von Klemperer, courtesy of The Witness)

Margie Orford made her crime writing name with her series of novels featuring Cape Town based police profiler, Clare Hart. But it has been a while since the last one was published – it was Water Music in 2013 - and Orford has now branched out into a new direction as well as moving physically from South Africa to London.

The Eye of the Beholder is a stand-alone novel, falling broadly into the crime category, but offering Orford’s readers a change of venue and a subtle, confrontational and disturbing read.

The story opens in the bitterly cold, snow-covered and lonely wastes of Canada in winter. Cora Berger is running, running for her life from a nameless person and a nameless deed – something that she needs to risk her life in the frozen wilderness to escape, accompanied only by an injured dog that is following her. Cora is the main one of three protagonists in Orford’s novel, and we soon meet the next one: Angel Lamarr.

Angel is also in rural Canada and works at a wolf sanctuary where the dog ends up. She knows who the owner is, but when she goes to look for him, she cannot find him. Slowly, pieces of the two women’s stories are revealed, but, other than the landscape they are both in at the start, there are no obvious connections. The links will come later.

The third woman is Freya, Cora’s daughter, who lives in London and is being hounded by the media after an exhibition of her mother’s art stirs up a storm, the artist being accused of pornography and of exploiting her daughter in a prurient way.

Gradually we begin to understand some of the back story of all three. Cora grew up in South Africa, and Orford lovingly describes the landscape of what was initially a happy childhood. But there are reasons why Cora escaped as soon as she could, and has now based herself in the grey, damp but also beautiful west of Scotland. Landscape is an important feature of the novel.

Orford cleverly draws the strings linking icy Canada, damp Scotland and hot and dusty South Africa together in what is often an angry book. Two of the women have suffered abuse. For Cora, the only way to articulate what she feels is through her art: for Angel, it is through anger and a need for revenge.

In a recent interview, Orford discussed the problems of dealing with abuse and pornography in literature without the book becoming voyeuristic, and she does it here with immense skill. Her take on the images that are all too well publicised as pornography and can be found in the nastier corners of the Internet is to explain that what should matter is not what they look like to the (usually male) viewer or the reaction they provoke, but what it feels like to be the subject of the images. And the same applies to abuse: for the author the victim is central.

Writing about art in fiction is challenging. Pictures have to be described rather than seen, but Orford, although giving very little detail of the pornographic images that are important to one strand of the plot, gives compelling descriptions of Cora’s art and the violence it often depicts. She also shows the ability of art to heal both the artist and the observer as well as the way it can tell stories that cannot easily be articulated in words.

To readers looking for a fast-moving thriller with good and evil clearly defined, The Eye of the Beholder may not tick all the boxes, though as the story progresses, the pace picks up and Cora in particular is a believable and sympathetic figure. But this book is more than just a dark drama. It raises questions that are very pertinent in today’s society and handles them with considerable skill and sensitivity. More than many of the crime novels that are being produced today, it does what crime fiction can do best: it mirrors contemporary society in a thought-provoking way. - Margaret von Klemperer

The Eye of the Beholder is published by Jonathan Ball. ISBN 1838856803