A trio of friends sell antiretrovirals to HIV patients in Cape Town, but their lives are upended when a stranger who knows more about them than he should tries to buy their whole stash.
It’s early in the 21st century, the South African government has not yet made antiretrovirals widely available, and Lindanathi, who contracted HIV while working as a lab assistant, now spends his days hanging out, huffing glue, and, with the help of two friends, Cecelia and Ruan, selling his own ARVs to customers he finds at support-group meetings. One day, the friends receive an email from a man offering to buy all their pills for double their usual price. But the proposition comes with an implicit threat: the man also includes information about where each of them lives and works, and before they even agree to his terms, the stranger has deposited the funds in their bank account. It’s an electrifying premise, though Ntshanga is more interested in Lindanathi’s emotional journey than with the particulars of the plot. Indeed, a good portion of the proceedings concerns not the present but the past. Ten years before, Lindanathi’s younger brother, Luthando, was killed, and Lindanathi blames himself for what happened. As the narrative moves forward, questions build: how exactly did Lindanathi contract HIV? What really happened to Luthando? And who is the stranger at the story’s core? Unfortunately the questions Ntshanga raises are more compelling than his answers, but even if the plot doesn’t completely come together, he still succeeds at exploring major themes—illness, family, and, most effectively, class—while keeping readers in suspense.
Readers hooked by the premise may ultimately find the plotting a disappointment, but Ntshanga’s promising debut is both moving and satisfyingly complex.