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Maya Fowler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The kiss of sacrifice: A gripping psychological thriller

Isa Konrad’s Die Soenoffer (“The sacrificial kiss/The kiss of sacrifice”, Lapa, 2011) is the best thriller I’ve read in any language in some time, and if you can even remotely read Afrikaans, I urge you to get your hands on a copy.

The subtitle, “The story of a nine-year-old serial killer” is enough to make anyone sit up and take notice. The world expects children to be innocent, pure, absolutely incapable of killing. Yet you might remember the case of Eric Smith, who murdered four-year-old Derrick Robie in New York at the age of 13 in 1993. Then there were Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who murdered two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool when they were both just ten years old, also in 1993. Then of course there was Columbine. There was Red Lake, there was Jonesboro, there was Springfield, Oregon. And those are just some of the cases in the English-speaking world where more than a handful lost their lives. Children do kill.

But what drives children to commit murder, and, a nine-year-old serial killer? Isn’t that a bit far-fetched, even for a work of fiction? As it turns out, not at all. If you turn to the bibliography, you’ll see the author consulted Gitta Sereny’s The Case of Mary Bell (1972) as well as Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell.

Mary Bell (born 1957), was convicted of manslaughter for strangling to death a four-year-old boy in a derelict house in 1968. Later that year, accompanied by Norma Joyce Bell (aged 13, no relation), she strangled a three-year-old boy, returning to the scene to mutilate his body with a razor.

In Die Soenoffer, Konrad paints the picture of what at first seems a truly evil soul: manipulative, intelligent, a murderer who plans her deeds thoroughly. The reader is filled with horror, but also compassion for a terribly damaged child. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the parallels with Mary Bell are there. Bell’s mother, for instance, was a prostitute who not only neglected her daughter but forced her from the age of four to engage in sexual acts with her clients. According to the entry on Wikipedia, “Independent accounts from family members strongly suggest that [her mother] had more than once attempted to kill Mary and make her death look accidental during the first few years of her life.”

Mary Bell was convicted for the 1968 murder of two children in the UK. She was aged ten at the time of the first murder.

The novel is set in two time frames: the present day, and the time of the murders. In the present setting, Isobel Swart, convicted of murdering four children at the age of nine, is a young woman. She has been released from prison and is the mother of a little boy of her own. It is clear that the child is more precious to her than anything in the world, and this aspect is clearly and convincingly portrayed – there is nothing and nobody she could ever love more.

At the outset, Isobel approaches wheelchair-bound journalist Wessel Janke, himself a man with a mysterious past, to interview her and tell her story to the world. Their rapport is uneasy at first, but then it appears that Janke, at first suspicious, has fallen for Isobel’s charms …

The twists and turns are brilliant and devastating, and sooner or later the reader starts to speculate with ice in the veins about what exactly the sacrifice mentioned in the title might be.

Konrad has created a chilling masterpiece that evokes in the reader fear, shock, sadness and compassion. It’s dark, compulsive and perfectly paced. And you’ll never look at jacaranda blossoms the same way again.

 

  • Author Isa Konrad will be taking part in an event at DF Malan High School on Saturday 5 October. See details below. 

 

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