Read of the Week

Dealing in Death: Ellen Pakkies and a Community’s Struggle with Tik

Sylvia Walker

Penguin Random House

Review: Lauren O’Connor-May

This book started out as a biography on Ellen Pakkies but changed track. Perhaps that’s why the narrative is disjointed, swapping between sentimental story-telling and dry fact and figure analytics.

Dealing in Death was first printed in 2009 but the publishers reissued this “updated” edition, just in time to coincide with the release of the biographical movie about the woman who became infamous for strangling her tik-addicted son to death.

The cover does not give the all-important disclaimer, which is found in the preface. That is: this book is not Ellen’s story as told by her, it is a joining together of what is, mostly, already publicly known into a narrative that is frequently interrupted by the broader Lavender Hill drug history.

As Walker explains in the preface, Ellen had initially approached her to write her life story. Walker secured a publisher and began interviewing Ellen, who then had a change of heart.

Walker decided to continue with the story in a third person narrative, weaving together most of what Ellen had told her and other information which was available through public records and news reports.

The story was broadened to include a brief history of drug abuse in Lavender Hill. The finished product is several stories – about people affected by drug abuse, social service organisations and Lavender Hill, dove-tailing each other, while Ellen’s story holds it together.

Certain parts of the book explore the nature and treatment of addictions but only in bits and bobs before switching back to the other stop-start narratives.

Where the author had no hard facts, she surmised and she frequently guesses at Ellen’s thoughts and feelings using phrases such as “must have” and “probably”.

This makes the book is difficult to read because a lot of it feels textbookish and at one point I put it down and became so disinterested that I read a whole other book in between.

It is also repetitive – the author mentions multiple times how “unbelievable” it is that “a mother could kill her own child”.

And most importantly, it is very depressing. While I didn’t expect the story to be about giggles, bubbles and skipping over rainbows, the author touched only lightly on the organisations which are working to turn the tide of addiction and doesn’t highlight enough of their successes. All the addicts’ stories in the book end tragically and Walker didn’t interview any addicts who had overcome addiction. In my opinion, this was a missed opportunity.