On Leopard Rock: A Life of Adventures, by Wilbur Smith

Nine stars

Master storytelling and international bestselling author Wilbur Smith takes a break from his adventure novels to offer the reader a snapshot into his personal life. Having penned this memoir of sorts, Smith explores his life, both as a young person in Rhodesia and his eventual success as an author. Having grown up on a large swath of land, young Wilbur learned the important of farming and protecting the livestock. His father instilled in him the need to always be on the lookout for predators, particularly of the animal variety. Smith shot his first lions (three in one event) as a child and used these skills to ensure he was never left unprepared. While his father was stern and happy to hand out needed punishment, Smith’s mother nurtured him and introduced a love of reading. This would continue into his boarding school years, where older prefects sought to break him down, but Smith took his punches and escaped into a world of fictional lands whenever he could. Diligent academics saw him earn a spot in university and eventually as a tax assessor, a menial job that numbed his mind, but left Smith much time to write. While his first novel left him with nothing but a slew of rejection letters—enough to paper the walls of his first flat—Smith did not give up, writing about about he knew. This led to an adventure all about the African subcontinent’s coming of age in an era when war was carving up vast lands. By the time Smith sent When the Lion Feeds to his agent, he was hopeful that all his thoughts had finally made a difference. In 1964, the novel caught the eye of many and began his passion with writing. An instant success led Smith to churn out more novels about the region, which added to his highly popular Courtney Series and thus began a passion for reading. Smith explores how his personal experiences influenced the narratives of his novels, but that they were entirely fictitious, never seeking to communicate covert messages or provide him with a soapbox for political and social views. The more he wrote, the deeper his passion grew and soon Smith was developing many novels with deep themes that touched him in a part of the world under horrific racial divide. Apartheid and white minority movements in South Africa and Rhodesia fuelled a number of Smith’s novels, though the success he found in their publication permitted him to see other parts of the world and thereby pen new pieces based on these experiences. As the reader is swept up in the narrative, Smith explores his love of Egyptology, sailing, diving, and hunting, all of which found their way into his vastly popular pieces. Anyone with a love of Wilbur Smith’s novels should not let this piece slip by, as his stories offer much to explain some of the rationale behind his popular novels. Highly recommend to anyone who enjoys biographical pieces or Africa in general, as they will walk away with much more than they might have suspected.

I caught the Wilbur Smith bug a few years ago and have been hooked on the Courtney and Ballantyne series ever since. I often wondered what gave him these ideas and how they came to pass so fluidly. Also, being the attentive reader than I am, I had to know why there was such a gap between Courtney novels and what might have helped pull Smith back into writing them. All of these answers can be found within the pages of this quick to read piece. Just as in his fiction writing, Smith develops a narrative that flows so smoothly that the reader will be shocked to see how much they can devour in a single setting. Smith may not write in an entirely chronological manner, but the themes that emerge can be easily stitched together to give the reader a clear picture of the larger story that Smith seeks to portray. It was somewhat disheartening to see Smith dismiss his previous marriages and children, as though they were a distraction to his passion of reading. However, there may be more of a story behind them, one that is not yet ready for public consumption. Additionally, in his closing chapter about writing and the passion he has for it, there is little to no mention about his handing the reins of the Courtney series over to others, who have helped to dilute the stories and lessen their quality, something that might turn new readers away from looking to the start of both series. These were thoughts I had hoped would be recounted in detail when the memoir was before me, but I am left wondering still. I did take much away from this piece, which filled in more gaps than it left. Wilbur Smith truly is a masterful writing and I will try my best to continue reading his work—as well as delving into the Egyptian series—as long as he has an idea to convey.

Kudos, Mr. Smith, for such a detailed piece. I learned a great deal and it has helped me develop an even greater appreciation for you as a man and author. I hope many of your fans will take the time to find this book, as it enriches the reading experience.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons