Saturday, October 22, 2011

113. What Molly Knew by Tim Keegan

Tim Keegan's What Molly Knew was shortlisted for the 12th Caine Prize for African Writing Prize in 2011. It was part of the crime anthology 'Bad Company' published by Pan Macmillan SA in 2008. It has also been included in the Caine Prize for African Writing 2011 anthology To See the Mountain and other stories.

What Molly Knew is a story that is difficult to define. It's is a crime story but not as we know the whodunit genre to be. Here the crime is not solved and the victim or the individual who stands to gain from exposing or getting the murder solved destroyed the only evidence involved; and the investigative part too is not shown. It is, however, a typical story whose plot could be predicted to a large extent once the characters and their associations or relationships with each other are known.

Molly's is currently married to Rollo, after the death of her husband. Molly's daughter Sarah sees the step-father as an intruder, or so Molly thinks. Then came along Tommie Nobrega, a psychologist into the Retiefs' household, who married Sarah against the wishes of Molly and to some extent Rollo. From there on the relationship between mother and daughter became strained.

Molly also suffers from domestic abuse and has chosen to remain with her abuser because of fear of becoming financially destitute. Molly seems to support the husband ahead of the daughter even though the husband isn't perfect and does things to her. She seems not have listened to her daughter or inquired about her problems and what was happening when Sarah was living with them. She defined all of Sarah's abhorrence of Rollo, the 'gulf of misunderstanding and mistrust, charge and recrimination', that existed between she and Sarah as a resentment of the 'speed with which her mother remarried'.
Alright, Rollos wasn't perfect: he drank too much; he stayed out at night playing darts at Wally's Bar in Koeberg Road; he'd visited prostitutes in his time, had girlfriends. And he had a temper, used his fists when he was boozed up, used foul language. The neighbours sometimes called the police in. But what was she supposed to do? Move out and starve? Go and live in a shelter? At her age?
And this is from Molly's perspectives.

Then Sarah died. Shot through her head, from behind. And Molly pointed accusing fingers at Tommie, Sarah's husband. It could only be Tommie, who else had access to the third floor? And who separated her from her daughter? Besides, Tommie is not from the country. He's a Mozambican. He is also a cross between black and white parents, but leaned more toward black than white. He also always wore ANC shirts. Above all he's a psychologists who knows how to convince people. But Inspector Duvenage has no concrete evidence to work with. Not a single mark to begin investigation as Tommie has been keeping to his script and the neighbours, though collaborative, haven't provided any clue yet.

But Molly was to find an envelope addressed to Rollo Retief under a pile of decomposing mowed grass. In this envelope is a letter, written two days before Sarah's murder, addressing Rollo. The letter warns Rollo to confess what she did to Sarah when she was young. It also threatens or mentions a confrontation in the presence of Molly, so that she - Molly - would know what he did to her. And finally, Rollo should ask for forgiveness so that Sarah would be free. With this piece of evidence found, one would have thought that the case will be solved or that it will lead to it and Molly would become free of oppression and abuse. But Molly destroyed it. All through the story, we see that Sarah had something to tell Molly but Molly was not listening. She preferred to lose a daughter than a means of sustenance.

What Molly Knew is a story that makes you question the reasons behind certain actions. Was Molly justified in choosing herself over her daughter? Was she justified in living under the complete control of a husband who, not only dictates to her, but also abuse her consistently? And why didn't she walk out finally when she found the evidence that will link her husband to the crime? And since her daughter was a nurse, financial concern alone could not be the reason. The reason could be that Molly, herself, might be suffering from a psychological problem that has transformed the fear she had for her husband to absolute reverence. Besides, from Rollo's conversations with Molly it was pretty clear that he considered Sarah a hindrance and her death, a good riddance. Here I am reminded of a Dean Koontz's book I read, False Memory, where the characters, under psychological control, worked against themselves. 

I found it difficult to connect to any particular character in the story. Both viewpoints from which the story is told did not give much insight into what was unfurling. The sad thing with Molly's behaviour and thought-trends is that they are real and present in most women's life. Initially, she was pitiful but all sense of sympathy fizzled out when the reason for tolerating Rollo's abusive behaviour was exposed. Inspector Duvenage was no where near solving the case and had no clue. We only get to know what he feels about such cases as Sarah's death and that was all. Molly, around whom the majority of the story revolved was dull and almost stupid in behaviour. I almost felt like pushing her to act.  For those interested in the Caine Prize shortlisted stories, the story could be downloaded here.
Brief Bio: Tim Keegan was born in Cape Town in 1952. He matriculated at Bishops and then majored in history at the University of Cape Town. He obtained his PhD in African History from the University of London. After living and working in the UK and America he spent five years in the African Studies Institute at Wits University before going to the History Department at the University of the Western Cape. In the mid-nineties he left his post as an associate professor there to continue research and writing. He has published a long list of articles and reviews in academic journals and many chapters in academic publications. Around 2002 he began writing fiction, not very seriously at first, but with increasing enthusiasm and commitment. (Source)

ImageNations Rating: 4.0/6.0


  1. Very interesting review, thanks Nana. I love that you are finding the Caine stories and reading them for us!

  2. I need to learn more about the Caine Prize. I wonder if the bookstore where I'll be working stocks the winners- need to find out! :-) To answer your question from the other day,I don't know if the vlog is coming back. We'll see if I have time!

  3. @SN. I will work to review all the shortlist and will be on time next year.

  4. @Maria, They are always put into an anthology, as these are short stories. You might want to check that out.

    thanks for your response on the vlog.

  5. I found this story present nothing new to the typical motif of abused child. It is fairly predictable. Also presented easy racial stereotypes.

  6. I thought so too. That has always been my problem regarding our Writers inability to go beyond the ordinary and accepted. Whenever there's an abused child you could predict the closest older male relative. Either a father, grandfather or step-father. It helps no one.


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