By: Mia Manning
In A Beautiful Place to Die, a slow, intimate ‘romantic’ murder novel, framed in the 1950s, Malla Nunn places her characters on a South Africa expedition to solve the brutal murder of a police captain.
The main character, an Englishman named Emmanuel, is on a search to solve the strange, unexpected mystery which seems, to him, to be without motive. During his time in South Africa, he meets many people who bring out aspects of his character he never thought existed, such as his own lust for power over people. The way in which the reader follows Emmanuel’s change in characterization is truly intoxicating, as it shows the reader what it is like to meet the darkest parts of yourself.
Although a beautiful novel, this book reads quite slowly, at least for the first half of it. It is strangely difficult to become obsessed with the murder itself as Nunn slowly feeds the reader background information and elaborate imagery of the environment these characters live and breathe in. Once the second half approaches, however, the book becomes radically more interesting. The crime of the novel is as shocking as it is unexpected, and the characters, their relationships, and their betrayals are captivating enough in that latter half to make the slow starting pace worth the read.
Despite being centered primarily around a murder, Nunn sets her work in 1950’s South Africa where the prevalent racism, and the effects it had on the culture deserves to be acknowledged; A Beautiful Place to Die helps bring such issues to the reader’s awareness. This is done, specifically, with a revealing light shone on women of color and the difficult decisions they face that others most likely could not imagine prior to reading the work. The female protagonist, Davida, faces such difficulties, and Nunn’s writing invokes heart-wrenching empathy. Empathy towards Davida is created as the novel progresses and it is shown not only in how poorly other minor characters treat her, but in how Emmanuel treats her this way as well; this struggle ultimately allows for a more dramatic setting in the novel. Davida’s grandmother is also a character the reader’s heart reaches out to and wants to protect. These characters allow the reader to feel as if they are truly apart of the closely knit society Nunn has created, and thus the emotional ride is truly bittersweet and makes the heart yearn for more information as the novel unfolds.
However, despite these important revelations and the action packed second half, the ending is still somewhat unsatisfying. The novel feels unfinished, despite the mystery being solved. Although this book is part of a series, and the ending may have been fashioned to encourage the reader to pick up the other novels, the novel does not end with a captivating cliffhanger. Rather, the unsatisfactory ending is unsettling and does not excite the reader to continue the series. Nonetheless, I would still say that A Beautiful Place to Die is still an engaging and important read, one that would be better suited to a reader had time to dedicate to a larger novel, and the entire series.