The Scent of Oranges – Book Review

scentoforanges Even if I had the key to Pa’s request, I had no idea how to tackle a murder investigation. All I could do was to remain vigilant – an early morning sparrow, picking up tidbits of information, hungrily following any leads that presented themselves. – from The Scent of Oranges, page 81 –

When a young woman named Linda returns to South Africa for the funeral of her father, she is drawn back in time to her childhood growing up on their farm amid the orange groves. Although it was she who discovered her murdered brother’s body, she has no recollection of the crime. But when she is given a letter from her father asking her to re-investigate the details of the murder, Linda finds herself once again embroiled in the mystery of her brother’s death which includes dark, family secrets.

Joan Zawatzky’s novel The Scent of Oranges is part mystery, part historical fiction. Zawatzky paints an unflattering picture of post-apartheid South Africa – a country of poverty, violence and inadequate medical care where TB and AIDS take their toll. Despite this bleak portrayal, Zawatzky also reveals the beauty of the countryside where belief in ancestral spirits are interwoven with ghosts of the past.

Rain had brought flowers, leafy tendrils and a mass of weeds to the brittle veld. I picked wet jacaranda blossoms, popping them as I once had and sniffing their faint perfume on my fingers Blue borage was flowering and I followed its trails as it crept along hedges, over trunks and boulders. – from The Scent of Oranges, page 211 –

I was back in the orange groves on a crisp golden morning when I saw them for the first time. Beneath the trees, I noticed a ripple in the leaves hugging the ground. Was it a mouse or small animal? I lay in a furrow holding my breath. I had dug welts into my thighs by the time I saw them, three shimmering creatures darting between the trees and only as tall as one of Pa’s beer bottles. Their pointed brown faces were too small and their features far too fine to discern details. I watched fascinated until a breeze swept them away. – from The Scent of Oranges, page 186 –

The book is narrated through Linda’s point of view and its strengths are the descriptions of South Africa and its people. I did not find the mystery itself that compelling – perhaps because the pace of the story is slow and early in the book Linda is often met with silence to her inquiries about the murder. Zawatzky takes a long time to build tension and resolve the conflicts which are introduced between the characters. This meandering pace is frustrating at times. I also found the dialogue to be the weakest element of the novel – stilted and unconvincing, all the characters began to sound the same to me after awhile. Because of this, I found myself feeling distanced from the characters as though I was observing their story, but not part of it.

Despite these flaws, Zawatzky does an adequate job in revealing the cultural divide between the native people and the western, often affluent population of South Africa. The magical elements of the book – visits from spirits and the belief in voodoo – were well written and compelling.

The Scent of Oranges is not a dynamic read, but readers who wish to learn more about the culture of post-Apartheid South Africa will find this novel enlightening.


Read more reviews of this book:

Marcia at The Printed Page

Dar at Peeking Between the Pages

Rachel at Old Musty Books

Sunny at That Book Addiction

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  1. I perked right up when you mentioned their was a mystery involved, but the rest of your review didn’t make me want to rush out to get my hands on a copy. This is not a bad thing, as the list is already plenty lengthy.

    • Diane on May 31, 2009 at 04:01

    I loved the cover of this book, but I’m not sure I’d enjoy the story.

    • Wendy on May 31, 2009 at 14:26

    Booklogged: I wouldn’t pick this up for the mystery which I thought was only so-so (and slow moving), but if you are interested in African historical fiction, you might try it.

    Diane: The cover is beautiful…I agree.

    • Kathy on June 2, 2009 at 08:12

    I’m disappointed to see that this isn’t a “dynamic” read. It is a subject that I’m interested in, though.

    • Wendy on June 3, 2009 at 06:43

    Kathy: You might give it a try if you like the subject matter…but don’t expect a traditional mystery story.

  2. This is the kind of cover art that would make me pick up this book off a shelf that I probably would never otherwise bother with. Maybe it wasn’t the best read ever, but at least it wasn’t a painful, mind-numbing kind of read, either. There’s always that!

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