So I had the opportunity to read Gert & Joey: nuwe lig op ‘n raaisel van dertig jaar this past month. By opportunity, of course, I mean I had planned on buying the paperback at the end of the month, but could not for pete’s sake wait that long and ended up buying the eBook instead.
Let’s be honest, most of us bookish people don’t need much of an incentive to buy or read books. In the case of Gert and Joey, however, I must admit that I was biased from the get-go in the sense that it’s a story which has fascinated me for years.
I was a small child when the news of the disappearances and subsequent deaths of the purported killers had preoccupied South African newspapers, magazines and TV. Perhaps those who had been adults, and parents, at the time will have a more vivid memory of the details, but as a white South African girl at the time, I think the story had struck fear into my heart and that of my friends.
You must remember—growing up in the 80s in South Africa meant the news was censored. We did not know it at the time, of course. We had no idea how much of what was happening in our country was being withheld from us or tainted beyond belief for the sake of apartheid-government propaganda. So in the minds of pubescent white girls, the only big threat to our safety and security was the Gerts and Joeys of the era. My obsession with the story had therefore been very much sparked by the reporting bias and how the story was covered so disproportionately to other news of the time.
In a nutshell
For those who haven’t read the book or don’t have knowledge of this true crime saga, I will give an overview.
In the late 1990s, young girls were being abducted throughout South Africa. The victimology was one of prepubescent blonde girls who would be abducted and never found. It was widely publicised as “white” South Africa had little pervasive crime at the time.
The perpetrators were discovered on account of the escape of one of their victims and would be found dead in their car after a police chase from apparent suicide. Though the evidence and their culpability in abduction was clear, the fate of the girls would remain a mystery to this day with multiple theories along the way.
As an avid true-crime reader, researcher and redditor, I will put forth some theories and my personal conclusions on these in a subsequent blog post later this month.
The book sheds light on the evidence and multiple theories of those involved in the case—from families and friends of the abducted children, the escapee, journalists, acquaintances, friends and families of the perpetrators, investigators and even clairvoyants who had consulted on the case over the years.
The author is South African journalist, Pieter van Zyl.
I was quite eager to read and therefore flit through the pages like a whore on crack! What struck me during the reading of the book, however, was how much of a journalistic feel the book has. Though I appreciate the terse writing at times, it is also disjointed in a sense, as if the author (or editors) had struggled to transpose the narrative from matter-of-fact reportage to that of a digestible true crime account. This is especially clear in the narrative style, which seems to jump between voices and leaves one confused at times as to who the person is drawing a conclusion or making a statement. Is it Pieter? Is it the person he is interviewing? Is it a quote of a quote by a person he is interviewing?
Perhaps the problem lies therein that the author had tried to maintain his journalistic creed and write an objective piece at the expense his voice which had been left at the door. One only views his point of view or presence in snippets along the way. Most writers will understand this dilemma as the expectation for professional writers who write in a non-creative capacity is that of objectivity and voicelessness. One has a voice, of course, but that voice must be subdued and chiseled to professional standards. And one gets the sense in the writing of this book that the author’s voice has been deliberately stifled.
From a journalistic sense, I suppose, it is good that the author remains objective but I feel that the book may have been so much more noteworthy and powerful had the writer not been afraid to uphold his voice as the common thread throughout the text and delve deeper into his own emotions surrounding the case.
There a slight problem in perceiving the book as objectively positioned since it tries to maintain a non-structured narrative style as well—and if one wants to position various theories side by side for comparison, then each interview and each section needs to maintain such similar structure.
Perhaps I’m saying this because I’d read another investigative story a few months prior to reading Gert and Joey which had managed so remarkably to show the reader all the threads and to speculate on the different theories through the voice of the author. This book was Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar. Though Eichar’s book also ends inconclusively, it managed to conclude the narrative in scientific and factual evidence to either support or refute certain theories.
Of course it’s highly possible that this type of effort was deliberately thwarted by the editors and publishers of Gert and Joey. There seems to be a pervasive editing style in South Africa whereby publishers take selective chances and grant editorial leniency to but a select few writers and stories. This is highly problematic, of course, as any story which hemorrhages editorial style detracts from the user experience and imposes a type of sterility to the writing which thwarts its authenticity. On the other hand, it may be that the editors and publisher had not provided sufficient guidance in translating the journalistic voice to a seamless narrative storyline. Was it perhaps rushed in the belief that this would get in quick sales so “to hell with editing!”?
My observations are purely speculative, of course, as there is no way of telling where the threads of this story had defrayed.
Nevertheless, although my critique seems harsh, it is from the perspective of someone who receives critique on writing on the daily and who believes that good writers are open to such critique. And I did find the publication highly informative, sufficiently structured and well researched. It was easy to read and avoids precarious tumbles into the arena of conspiracy theorism which it may have easily taken in the hands of the wrong writer.
It is, however, problematic for me that I cannot feel the writer enough and my harshest critique is therefore for the editors and publishers. The editing overshadows the clearly crucial content of the book.
Irrespective of my views on the editing and the final “packaging” of the book, it is clear that van Zyl went to great lengths to gather information from all sides of the story. Given the censorship and political factors at play in the 80s, it’s quite commendable that he had gathered the information he had.
One is left to wonder why the police had not taken up certain lines of questioning and investigation van Zyl had pointed out, or left to wonder if they are not offering full disclosure for this very reason.
I would have liked to see him provide an overview of the various theories by those he’d investigated, but as mentioned above, perhaps this had been an editorial choice.
It seems quite tongue-in-cheek that the author finishes with the sentence “Want daar is steeds nie ‘n punt nie.” (Because there’s still no point.)
One could almost assume that the slightly disjointed nature of the writing and book is a deliberate manifestation or mayhaps a metaphor for the way in which the investigation and joining of story threads had been done over the years by those involved with the case.
The layout & editing
In line with my commentary about the editing, it would seem the publishers and editors had skimped on certain crucial usability points.
As a writer and editor by trade, I had a minor giggle in the initial page of the book which mentions the publishers, editors and designers as it is in this very section where one sees that they couldn’t even manage adding a space between the colon and their names.
An eBook does not provide page numbers in the traditional sense, but let’s just say that there’s a typo at 3% (or page 3 if you use the smallest text size in a Kindle app on an LG G6).
These things are negligible to your average reader, of course (hell, I’ve discovered typos in Stephen King books, and I’m not referring to deliberate typos), but it adds credence to the theory that this book was either rushed or “underedited”.
In the photo section of the book you also get the feeling that the layout artists had skimped on proper editing for digital formats. Something as simple as improving the quality and reducing pixelation on the images, for instance, seems to have been forgotten altogether. Or perhaps they could have passed the imagery through a consistent filter (and cropped certain edges). Even the images of the letters could easily have been enhanced for the sake of publication through the most rudimentary photo-editing software.
- Well researched
- Relevant to all South Africans
- Fragmented narrative
- Badly edited
- Badly formatted and finished
I give the Gert and Joey a well-deserved 6.5/10. I believe this book could have been improved upon with better editorial guidance but it was a fast and informative read without any hangups.
I hope to see more of Pieter van Zyl and that he will make his voice heard in his subsequent publications, as I believe there is one worthy of hearing!