Review: ‘A Walk at Midnight’ by Alex van Tonder

Jane Ronson is the epitome of a dutiful, devoted wife and mother. She has, with grit and grace, supported her husband, Colin, through the scandals and setbacks that have dogged his career as the Governor of New York State. After years in her restrictive role as the governor’s wife, Jane achieves her own success as a writer, and is offered a publishing deal for her debut novel. This exciting news is overshadowed by Colin’s sudden death under mysterious circumstances that eerily echo events that unfold in Jane’s novel, making her the primary person of interest in the investigation.

As the police question the Ronson family to try to establish what happened on the night of Colin’s death, it becomes increasingly apparent that everyone is keeping secrets – some to protect Colin, some to protect themselves. All of them to protect the Ronson family name.

As Jane’s and Colin’s pasts emerge in the course of the investigation, the truth becomes increasingly elusive and disturbing.

[Goodreads]

DETAILS

Publisher: Pan MacMillan

ISBN: 9781770106512

Date read: 27 April 2020

Review

This dark, twisty novel from Alex van Tonder really deserves more traction.

Interspersed with snippets from police interviews surrounding a high-profile murder, A Walk at Midnight follows the life of Jane Ronson as she struggles to establish a sense of self in a hostile, sexist, violent world. Van Tonder takes an enthralling and unique approach to the murder mystery genre, choosing to centre her story not on the events directly surrounding the crime, but rather on the development of the case’s prime suspect. What emerges is a slow-build, utterly engaging narrative about a “difficult woman” and the various ways in which she has been beaten into submission.

Van Tonder’s plotting and pacing are immaculate. I was so engrossed by her storytelling that I read this book in one sitting – something that doesn’t happen often enough these days. I spent about 90% of the novel waiting for something terrible to happen; when the twists and turns did arrive, each evoked an almost visceral response from me. My neck and shoulders were knotted days after turning the final page.

This suspense and intrigue would amount to nothing without the driving force of a deeply compelling protagonist. Jane is by no means likeable, nor is she particularly admirable – but something about her caught me off guard. From a young age, she learns the art of feigning compliance and keeping her mouth shut. She swears that she will never become like her mother, who paints on a smile and carefully conceals the bruises on her face each morning. And yet, at the time of the murder, she is the poster-woman for supportive wives, smiling beside her senator husband amid numerous sexual harassment scandals. Her children hint at a physically abusive relationship in the police interviews, while Jane herself dismisses queries into Colin’s violent temper. As the narrative unfolds, we are given glimpses of her steely determination to overcome her circumstances, her fierce refusal to accept injustice, her burning desire to make a name for herself. Why would a woman like her put up with a husband like that? I found myself wondering. How does someone so strong find herself in this position?

And then, later: How much can one woman endure without falling apart?

At its heart, A Walk at Midnight is a story about what it means to be the perfect daughter, the perfect wife, the perfect mother. Jane’s experiences will be frighteningly familiar to female readers – although I suspect they will come as quite a shock to male ones. She is the woman we are all terrified of becoming, but whose life nonetheless mirrors back our own experiences. This is what transforms van Tonder’s immersive thriller into a profoundly disturbing yet monumentally important work of literature.

Don’t underestimate this novel. And keep an eye on its author, while you’re at it. Alex van Tonder going places.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Recommended to: People with nerves of steel; women sick of all this bullshit; men who never want to sleep again. Also anyone looking for a dark, unique, utterly immersive thriller.

Note: Although the traumatic events of Jane’s life are handled with great sensitivity by the author, this book should come with a serious content warning for sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, and other psychologically traumatic subjects. Potential readers, proceed with caution. This book gets intense.

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