I confess that I had considerable difficulty in continuing with Capture, by Roger Smith, after I’d read the first forty pages or so.  The quote on the front jacket (from The Times) says: ‘Smith grabs readers and plunges them into his nightmare visions’.  I have probably never seen ten words used with such accuracy to sum up a novel.

Capture is set in South Africa.  All of its characters are indeed plunged into a nightmare of betrayal, violence and murder.  For the reader, the nightmare is exacerbated by the fact that none of these characters seems to possess noble or redeeming qualities.  It is as if society itself has squashed all goodness out of them, so that they are left like zombies, wandering in a broken civilisation, intent upon nothing but their own survival and ruthless about how they achieve it.  As well as practising routine violence, they make their sordid lives bearable by indulging in other vices: drink, drugs, abuse of power. At the beginning of the novel, Nick, who comes closest to being its hero, ignores his four-year-old daughter Sunny’s cries for help as she drowns just yards from where he stands with one of his cronies, smoking a joint.  Before this, he appears to be obsessed with her in a creepily unhealthy way – until it is made apparent that his obsession lies, not with her, but with the imaging paraphernalia on which he has built his career.  Things matter more than people.  His daughter is pressed unwillingly into performing for him daily, as if she were the organ-grinder’s monkey.  Meanwhile Caroline, her mother, who has never recovered from post-natal depression, survives on a cocktail of anti-depressants and hatred.

Into their lives comes Vernon, the most sinister character in the novel, Dawn, the ex-prostitute and recently-sacked stripper whom he is ‘protecting’, and Brittany, her daughter.  Vernon has no sexual relationship with Dawn but he is obsessed with Brittany – we never quite find out why.  The unhappy triangle of Nick, Sunny and Caroline is reflected in a kind of literary distorting mirror by the unholy one of Vernon, Brittany and Dawn.  Yet this comparison is too simplistic: Vernon and Dawn are both badly traumatised characters who can’t break free mentally from the privations they have endured in the past.  United in their wish to protect Brittany from the sort of childhood they each suffered, they almost lose her to the depravity of Dawn’s junkie neighbours.  Nick and Caroline are being damaged in the present, especially by the toxic fall-out from their failing marriage.

At least five murders result from the mess created by Sunny’s death, in which Vernon has been complicit in order to gain power over Nick.  By the end of the novel, all but one of the adult protagonists has committed murder or been accessory to it.  The ending offers catharsis of a kind, but it does not convince that the new life opening up for the survivors will turn out to be anything other than a sick mirage.

Why did I steel myself to finish it?  In the first place, it is beautifully written.  The accounts of the murders are brutal, but, given their context, not gratuitously violent: the violence is in accordance with the rest of Smith’s weird, fractured world.  One also senses that his portrayal of life in urban South Africa is pretty accurate.  Secondly, it raises some very big questions about what it means to be human and the nature of crime and punishment.  At its heart lies a conundrum: can human beings be brutalised into depravity, or is the depravity always there, waiting for a propitious circumstance to show itself?  In other words, is there any true nobility or selflessness to be found at all in the human condition?  Smith addresses these questions through his skilful handling of characterisation and plot.  The answers that he provides are profoundly disturbingCapture does not make good bedtime reading, but it is a very grown-up novel.