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Umbilical by Jane Kay

“In Umbilical”, so the tagline to the novel explains, “Jane Kay weaves a tale of an unwelcome inheritance, one that is as inescapable as it is perilous.” And that’s a pretty spot on summation of how Kay manages to bring together a dual time frame and a fairly complex plot structure with the backdrop of a politically unstable and problematic historic period in Africa.

The post-apartheid environment creates a perfect setting for such a robust story. While it is not an apartheid novel, it certainly captures the tensions and the emotions of the time. The fragile situation of a tinder box ready to catch fire at any moment. This, alone, gives the story enough of the emotional drive to keep reading.

The novel begins dramatically, with a chartered plane crashing with the precious cargo of an undocumented child being carried by a nun. The scene is as intriguing as it is harrowing. As the narrative progresses we, as readers, explore the connection between these incidents and the difficult progress that child has made. There are two main figures throughout the story: Ruth Masisi and Arthur Coleman. Both of them seem to have their independent motivations for their interest in the child and call upon the help of the men who first rescued the child, some 30 years earlier.

The not so wild, but certainly a goose chase, takes them to some dark motives and unravels a few of the sordid details of the missing child. Masisi, a judge with a reputation of uphold while awaiting appointment to the highest court of the country, is often on a knife’s edge in regard to the word of law. A position not favourable for one in such an exalted position.

It’s the sense of family secrecy that drives the story. It’s quick in the pacing and maintains this throughout the story, an impressive feat with such a lot of adventure, mystery books around presently. Add to that some brilliant characterisation of all the significant characters in the novel. The big pharma tycoon Arthur Coleman is brilliantly captured with the money hungry mentality that is so characteristic of the time, and of the industry.

In addition, the musical aspect of the growing status of the rock stars in the novel. The way the music was explored and explained was really quite something else. The subtle rhythmic movement of the novel itself is musically driven and captures that beauty and lyricism that Kay seems to so effortlessly construct.

Overall, this was a surprising book that you can absolutely immerse yourself in. Intriguing, yet believable, beautifully written and highly evocative.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Atmosphere Press


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