The dazzling writing style of Bryce Courtenay is captured in this, his debut novel. Its intricate prose and powerful characters bring a story to life that few readers will be able to resist. In rural South Africa during the late 1930s, Peekay is a young boy who has been sent to boarding school. With English roots, Peekay struggles in this school where the Boer boys ridicule him for his heritage, turning verbal pokes into full-on malicious attacks. With war building in Europe, Peekay is led to believe by classmates that Hitler will soon arrive in South Africa to toss the shackles from the Afrikaner people, long subjugated by the English. After a number of brush-ups with others, the matron agrees to send Peekay to his grandfather’s home, a long train ride across the country. Eager to leave, Peekay begins the long train ride, soon joined by the conductor, Hoppie Groenewald. This new friend helps Peekay with the ways of the rails, as well as being an amateur boxer in his own right. Peekay develops a passion for boxing and attends a bout where Hoppie is set to meet a much larger opponent, all during the train’s layover. Peekay is astonished when he sees Hoppie box, as well as the passion that others feel about the sport. From there, it is back on the train, where Peekay must survive the rest of the journey without his dear Hoppie. Arriving at his grandfather’s home, Peekay has distant memories of life with his family, including two young kitchen maids who keep him entertained. As he tried to acclimate to life in rural South Africa, Peekay befriends a highly interesting man, one Professor ‘Doc’ Karl von Vollensteen. Doc is a former concert pianist from Germany whose interest in botany piques Peekay’s curiosity, allowing him to further his education in a less formal setting. War continues to rage and South African officials choose to detain Doc, citing his German heritage as an issue that cannot be overlooked. While incarcerated, Doc continues to share his passion of music with Peekay and the other prisoners, many of whom are poor blacks. Straddling the middle, Peekay is able to forge strong friendships with the prisoners, who respect him for not treating them as lower class citizens, as well as with the guards, who help hone is boxing skills. Still young, Peekay must sell his abilities as a boxer to those who will help shape him into the athlete he hopes to become. Peekay’s passion for learning helps him excel in school and he’s sent off to yet another boarding school, but remains close to all those who have helped him along his path. The reader can easily become lost in Courtenay’s fabulous narrative that continues to twist from here, adding depth and insight to an already powerful tale. Highly recommended for those who love complex stories that touch on history and coming of age. How do I feel about the book? As Professor von Vollensteen would say, “for this I give… eleven out of ten. Absoloodle!”
Those who have not experienced a Bryce Courtenay novel are in for a treat with this piece. Not only does the reader have the opportunity to experience Courtenay’s first foray into writing but also experience his unique style, which combines well-developed characters with a plot that is rich with detail. Some may find his writing to be both excessive and too much to digest in a single novel, but it is this that makes the books even more enjoyable. Courtenay uses an interesting formula in his writing, which the attentive reader will discover as they meander throughout his novels, this one being no exception. There are scores of characters who cross the pages, each serving to develop their own backstory and to offer a slice of character revelation for the protagonist, Peekay. While the reader will notice strong ties between Peekay and one character in the early portion of the book, that individual will soon vanish, though their life lessons and impact are felt throughout the rest of the story. Courtenay inundates the reader with names and characteristics, which may cause some to stumble or require crib notes, but, rest assured, it is well worth the temporary confusion. Having read all of Courtenay’s novels, I can see character themes that reemerge, including token characters of a variety of backgrounds. The story itself becomes a tale full of twists and turns, such that the path on which the narrative is leading the reader soon changes, leaving what one might have expected to be left in the proverbial dust. This is also something that some may criticise, but I find this serpentine journey to be refreshing and forces the reader to remain engaged, rather than skim through parts of the story. As Courtenay calls this piece his loose attempt at a fictionalised autobiography (yes, the dichotomy of the statement is not lost on me), the historic moments and struggles are more than conjured up dramatisations from world events, but actual experiences that Courtenay felt. One can only imagine the strife in which South Africa found itself in the late 1930s and into the 40s. The Afrikaner population is still smarting as they are being regulated by the English, but they, too, have developed a sense that, perhaps, Hitler can come to save them and return the land to the rightful Boers. Peekay feels this throughout the novel, an English boy tossed amongst the strong-willed Afrikaners who look down upon him. However, there is also the theme of brewing apartheid, which has been loosely permitted for decades already. Courtenay’s narrative shows the subjugation of the black population and the brutality that is inflicted upon them. While I do not condone this whatsoever, I have always been very interested in the apartheid mentality and how the Afrikaners justified it to the world. Courtenay offers up a front row seat to the reader, hoping they will better understand what went on. As an aside, the book’s publication came just as the grip of apartheid was loosening, so it may be an educational piece to those who could not fathom the true horrors of the policy as it gained momentum and became a way of life. It is this sort of depth that has drawn me to all of Courtenay’s books, as he offers more than a superficial look at the world, which entertaining the reader. True, his books are long and tangential, but, like a well-paced journey, they permit the reader to gather many wonderful nuggets of information from page to page. As a friend commented to me recently, the story ends somewhat abruptly and has no strong sense of finality. Therefore, I’ll rush to get to the sequel, Tandia, to continue the exploration of Courtenay’s Africa.
Kudos, Mr. Courtenay, for such a stupendous piece. Re-reading this book has solidified why I consider it one of my favourites and a book I’d surely pack for an island isolation.
This book fulfils Topic # 3: Island Reading in the Equinox #3 Reading Challenge.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons