Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

When did this book sneak up on me? It's a story of a prodigy - mentally, physically, in geology, botany, boxing, gambling, chess, in pretty much anything but music, where he's merely competent. Bryce Courtenay's hero should irritate the hell out of me. And yet somehow he doesn't. It's also the story of how a white boy becomes a symbol of power for black South Africans. I'm a little uncomfortable with that, and yet, it's handled as well as such things can be.

And yet, this book snuck up on me. I fell in love with the supporting characters, starting with Granpa Chook, the chicken, continuing through Doc, Giel Piet, and Morrie. Notice that these are all male characters. Women are present in this book, and even important at times, but their characters are much less clearly drawn.

The world of South Africa is seen through a child's eyes, although, as I have said, a child so precocious as to be almost unbelievable. But thankfully, not precious. Or cute. Or indeed, who has a name. That we ever find out, anyway. The whole book, he goes by Peekay, which is sounding out of the initials of what he was called by his first childhood enemies - Pisskop. Pisshead. We get no other name for him.

The book is a travelling through camouflage, first with Peekay by trying to be invisible when he is young and too obviously British in a Boer school, and tormented by his schoolmates, to his time in a village where everyone loves him for different reasons (and the one who doesn't dies of rectal cancer. Huh. The more I write about this, the more it makes me subtly uncomfortable), and everyone wants him to follow certain paths, on to another school, where he hides in excellence. And then, at the end, when he finds himself in the mines of Rhodesia.

It's funny sometimes how, as I'm writing reviews, I'll either uncover more things I liked about a book than I realized, or, in this case, things that I didn't even realize nagged at me.

And yet I did enjoy this book. But it doesn't sit entirely comfortably. But the world Courtenay creates was engrossing while I was in it, and encompasses so many topics I don't even think I could being to try to summarize them. And listing them would tear them out of their habitat, reduce them when they make perfect sense where they grow between the pages. And if that's not a mixed metaphor to end on, I don't know what is.

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