Bryce Courtenay impresses again with another ‘practice novel’ as he called them when taking up the art of writing. The sequel to his extremely popular The Power of One, this novel seeks to look at South African political and social transformation (regression?) from the other side of the coin, through the eyes of a teenage girl, Tandia, and the rest of the subjugated population. Tandia is raped soon after her father’s funeral. A mixed-race bastard—her Indian father’s affair with his black house servant—Tandia does not fit into either of South Africa’s non-white populations, but remains downtrodden and the victim of extreme racism. When she is tossed from her home, Tandia takes matters into her own hands, landing up in trouble with the law and facing the man who violated her not long ago. Police officer Jannie Geldenhuis holds his power over her and, with nowhere else to go, Tandia is stuck signing a false statement of facts to save her life. When they arrive at one of the local brothels, Geldenhuis demands that she remain here, under the watchful eye of Mama Tequila, and report back on all the clientele who frequent the establishment. With the Immorality Act— a strict law prohibiting sexual relations between the races—in full effect alongside other pieces of the larger apartheid system, Tandia is sure to have a long list of those who wish to cover themselves in a veil of secrecy. Meanwhile, Peekay, young protagonist from The Power of One, is now at Oxford, reading law and honing his boxing career. He befriends a young sculptor who seeks to explore him through her artistic lens, but this forces Peekay to explore more of himself and his interactions with others. As things heat up in the boxing ring, Peekay must also dodge jabs that life is throwing his way, away from his African homeland. When Mama Tequila sets off with Tandia during a brothel holiday, they encounter the big city of Johannesburg, where racial segregation is in full-swing in the apartheid-fuelled way of life. Shantytowns and oppression populate every corner of the city, though the people rally behind their love of boxing. Tandia hears stories of many men who entered the ring and fought, transforming themselves from lowly black men to heroes for the entire community. One such boy, the Tadpole Angel, is white, but appears to have the love of all the people, as he is happy not to look at the colour of your skin, but the person inside. With Geldenhuis also on the boxing scene, Tandia is terrified that she will see him again, his ruthless ways leaving scars deeper than the ones he has delivered to her skin. With his boxing career going exceedingly well, Peekay returns to South Africa to open a legal practice, only to butt heads with some of the closed-minded police officers, including Geldenhuis. Tandia grows closer to Peekay, though the Immorality Act makes any future between them all but impossible. With race relations reaching a fevered pitch and Peekay heading up a legal challenge to the core of the apartheid system, something will have to give, while the world looks on. Brilliant in its literary delivery, Courtenay pulls the reader in and leaves them wanting so much more, while some will surely remain disgusted by the abhorrent treatment by the Afrikaner population. Recommended for all those who have the patience to endure a slow-building story about race relations, jaded politics, and the power of one man’s convictions fuelled by the determination of one woman to change her country of birth.
Those new to Bryce Courtenay will likely find the author to be one they either love or cannot stomach. This is Courtenay’s second foray into writing—his first just as brilliant—permitting the reader to experience his unique style. The novel combines well-developed characters with a plot that is rich with detail and shakes the reader to the core as the political events and police implementation come to life on the page. Some may find his writing to be both excessive and too much to digest in a single novel (or both this and the previous 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 Tandia, as well as further enriching of Peekay, now that he has reached adulthood. The story builds on itself in such a way that the reader can see Tandia’s growth (personal and emotional) while she still struggles to find her place in South Africa’s repressive political system. 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 along two paths, Tandia’s life and that of Peekay’s time in England. I must insert here that while Peekay’s passion for the law is visible throughout the story, his development into a world class boxer is also found within the various chapters attributed to him. Courtenay does a sensational job describing these fights in detail, such that they reader (boxing fan or not) is on the edge of their seat as the match progresses on the page. One can only imagine the strife in which South Africa found itself in the 1950s and 60s, with the apartheid momentum gaining and the deprivation of the non-white population reaching its zenith. The Afrikaner population is armed and ready to exact their power at any cost. 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. 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, while 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. While Courtenay turned away from writing about his homeland after this piece, there are many other novels which turn their focus to his adopted country of Australia. I will be sure to revisit them in time, allowing myself to get lost in the magical style that Courtenay has, paired with his audiobook reader, Humphrey Bower. Two fantastic men who are at the top of their games!
Kudos, Mr. Courtenay, for such a stupendous piece. Re-reading this book has solidified why I have come to call you one of my favourite authors of all times.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons