Title: Cry of the Firebird
Author: T.M. Clark
Published: 18th November 2019
Synopsis: In the badlands of Africa, a resourceful doctor fights to save her patients’ lives. Australian thriller writer T.M. Clark returns with a vivid, action-packed adventure in the tradition of Wilbur Smith.
South African-born Doctor Lily Winters, a consultant with the World Health Organization, has been in the thick of some of the worst humanitarian disasters across the globe. But when she’s posted back to South Africa following the suspicious death of an ex-colleague, she faces the biggest medical mystery she’s ever seen.
The resettled San community of Platfontein is exhibiting a higher-than-average HIV infection rate, and their people are dying. The cases Lily takes over are baffling and despite her best efforts the medicine doesn’t seem to be helping.
To save this unique community, Lily and a policeman from the Kalahari, Piet Kleinman, join forces to trace the origins of the epidemic and uncover the truth. Their search drags them into the dangerous world of a corrupt industry driven by profit while the authorities meant to protect their community turn a blind eye. In a race against time Lily and Piet will put not only their careers but their lives on the line…
South Africa, 2010. It has been two decades since apartheid ended, but the scars and aftershocks still run deep. People still remember what it was like living under the regime – and the system of ranking races and determining where one could go, and what they could do based on the colour of their skin. Lily Winters grew up – white, privileged and aware of it, but not thinking about it until she’s lived another life and come back to work with WHO. Piet Kleinman is a medicine man and a detective, a San community member who was San member, who has been given permission to move beyond the confines of the townships and the land granted to the San in Kimberley. Piet works with Natalie Hatch, and their investigation into Lily’s predecessor, Ian, takes a few nasty and complicated turns as Lily works with them to find out why people are dying, despite the best medical efforts to help them recover from treatable illnesses.
But when it becomes clear that there is more to the medical situation than meets the eye – and soon, whispers of corruption amongst those charged with protecting the community emerge. Piet and Lily keep investigating, but at what cost?
Set in the 21st century in a South Africa still haunted by the inequalities and injustices of apartheid, Cry of the Firebird is an enthralling thriller that breathes life into its diverse cast of characters and brings a seedy underbelly of crime where people think they can get away with it, and continue to harm those they claim to help. Each character has their own motives – Ulwazi and Reyansh, Lily and Piet. The story is told in third person and moves in and out of their perspectives, which at first felt a bit disjointed but once thing started falling into place just over halfway through, it became clear why, and this technique worked well to evoke a sense of dread and unease throughout the novel that made it compelling to continue reading, to find out what happened to the characters.
T.M. Clark evokes a sense of Africa with the sights, the sounds, the languages and the smells, and certainly pulls you into the setting. It is beautiful and dangerous in many ways, and whilst you enjoy the beauty, there is always the sense of unease that comes with knowing danger lurks around the corner, waiting to come for the characters. This novel doesn’t shy away from the tensions that remain in the shadows of apartheid, or the differences in how each character views the world. She allows Lily to acknowledge her privilege whilst building a relationship with Piet. The gritty reality of HIV and AIDS is shown through Elise and her family, a young San girl who is left to care for a younger brother and sister.
As Lily navigates this treacherous case and country, the disunity and unity are shown equally, and there is always a sense that not everything is perfect. Lily and Piet’s honesty about their experiences with apartheid allowed two diverse characters to tell their stories that are a small part of a bigger story – but it is a start, and allows the reader to begin to explore a country trying to heal, whilst corruption in various circles threatens to undo any attempts at unity and fairness. Through Lily and Piet, we see what cooperation and a unique sense of meeting people from different cultures halfway, and using Western knowledge and local, indigenous knowledge can do to help everyone. It is of course not perfect, but in a way it feels hopeful that everything will one day work out.
A thrilling African adventure.