At play are three very different cases. They can be categorized as: serious; very serious, personally devastating; and seemingly routine. The details of the three cases make for a nice mix and varied tempo. I enjoyed watching George react to widely differing situations. There are twists, developments, and revelations that keep the stories moving along smartly not to mention "I didn't see that coming" moments.
For readers not familiar with the South African legal system, George is an attorney. He meets with clients and handles their legal needs like contracts, divorces, etc. If the case goes to court, the attorney briefs an advocate who is an expert in arguing cases in front of a judge. George works with the short, rotund, gluttonous, annoying, snarky Scottish advocate Patrick McLennan, known as the Poison Dwarf by those who have come up against him in court.
Shortly after meeting with Nyathi, Georges brother, Greg a bush guide in Botswana, shows up in Cape Town, blood staining his shirt and launching the major story within the novel. Greg is leading a family on an authentic bush experience when the young son is attacked and blinded by a night-time hyena attack. A lawsuit by the overbearing father is inevitable. Greg is no help in understanding the situation since he is in shock and so wracked with guilt that he wants to be punished. Unfortunately for George, there are devastating consequences for him as well.
* Notes on the photos at the end
The location moves to Botswana when George and Patrick go with Greg to the scene of the attack to try to make sense of what happened. They hope that Greg will be more forthcoming on his own turf. Sarah handles the transition from urban Cape Town to Botswanan veldt smoothly and with humour. Patrick's approach to camping seems to be based on old safari movies.
That this section is one of my favorites in the book is evident from the animal photos I decided to include. It resonates strongly in me. There is a tautly written event, based on something the author experienced, that made me anxious. Sarah uses the contrast between the type of expedition that Greg leads and commercialized "let's not let nature too close" tours to show her feelings about the African bush, the effects people are having on the animals, and the poseurs who are cheapening the experience. It is also a very effective setup to the denouement in the courtroom.
The third case floats in and out. It is the divorce of a same-sex marriage between a wealthy American and a Capetonian man. George's firm is representing the American and it looks like a simple enough "arrange a settlement and minimize the damage" affair. George gives the case to Shane who works on interest. Shane is everything George is not: handsome, well dressed, organized, and physically fit -- he leads a dawn boot camp fitness program and fights fires. Periodically George tries to find out how negotiations are proceeding although Shane is treating it with an annoyingly offhand attitude. The divorce case was a revelation to me because I didn't realize that South Africa had same-sex marriage. Wikipedia tells me that the Civil Union Bill was enacted in 2006. With my own country in turmoil over the issue, it was startling to find that a country that was severely conservative not that long ago has been able to resolve an emotionally charged issue. I haven't researched homosexuality in South Africa but I wonder if apartheid has sensitised courts and the legislature to inequalities based on characteristics of a segment of the population. With same-sex marriage accepted, it is a horrifying to read reports of "corrective rape" perpetrated to "cure" lesbians and make them heterosexual.
While all of this is happening, George is trying to jump start his personal life which has stalled since his relationship with Valerie ended. This provides some of the ligher moments as well as the cliff hanger ending of the novel.
The story is narrated by George in first person present tense. This style of writing is sometimes criticised because it limits the reader to the viewpoint of a single character but personally I like it. Watching events unfold through a single set of eyes makes me feel more of a participant in the story. The present tense give an immediacy to the action. I don't always need or desire an omniscient narrator to tell me what is happening and why.
Interesting thing about the characters. I was well into the story before I realized that I didn't know the race of many of them. I've been reading books set in apartheid South Africa and race is a constant issue and not a question so this brought me up short. Actually I tripped over my preconceptions of how race would be treated. Characters I pictured as white are black. Remember what I wrote earlier about why I like first person narratives? If we are seeing events and people through George's eyes, what does this tell us about George and the reader? This was an unexpected but appreciated challenge to me as a reader. Well done Sarah.
I wouldn't characterize Tooth and Nailed as a humourous but it made me smile, if not laugh ... often. Sarah has a wicked sense of humour and a keene knack for dialog. She describes an outfit Patrick is wearing as "...a shade of green I haven't seen since ABBA was topping the charts." George notes in another scene that "Patrick and I stand out like Eugène Terre'Blanche at an ANC Youth League rally." An American equivalent of the latter might be along the lines of "...stand out like the Klan at an NAACP convention."
Tooth and Nailed is a thoroughly satisfying read. Besides the fun of reading a well plotted novel with interesting characters, parts of the novel hit at an emotional level that I continue to think about long after I finished. I look forward to reading more by this author.
I sent Sarah a holiday greeting and mentioned that I was working on this review, in Florida, sitting in my favorite bar. Here's proof.
*Notes on the animal photos
The b&w photographs of the hyenas and the colour image of the lions were taken by my father, Mack Lundy, Jr., in Kruger National Park. I know the colour photo of the hyena was taken in 1954 by my Aunt Sara so I'm going to say they all date from then though we did visit the park in 1952 as well.
Here is the original from which I derived my "artsy" rendering at the top of the post.