I’d never heard of this book before, or even this author, and for whatever reason I was expecting some sort of manly thriller / epic type novel – Nevil Shute, Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer – you know the sort of thing I mean. Despite having no basis whatsoever for this expectation, it turned out that I was not far wrong – this is pretty much exactly that kind of book. And it’s long, too.

(What was completely wrong about this book was the plot summary on the blurb. The blurb led me to believe that this would be the story of some guy who becomes a tribal leader, leading men into a deadly battle for freedom and justice. It isn’t. Not even remotely.)

The book is about the life of a white, English-descended South African between the ages of about five and eighteen. For various reasons the only name we know him by is “Peekay”, which he takes for himself as an abbreviation (PK) of a cruel nickname given him during his first, tortured year away at boarding school. The effects of that year on his psyche reverberate throughout the remainder of the book.

He takes his grand ambition (to be the welterweight boxing champion of the world) from the friendly encouragement of the first person to be memorably kind to him after that year, the boxing-mad train guard who looks after him on his way to rejoin his family in his new home town of Barberton.

Once he arrives there, he strikes up a number of remarkable and educational friendships including: Doc, an aging, but still very active, German professor; Mrs Boxall the forceful librarian; various prison officers (Doc is interned for the duration of the Second World War, and Peekay spends a lot of time at the prison visiting his friend and training with the prison boxing team); Geel Piet, a mixed-race prisoner who becomes Peekay’s unlikely boxing coach; and Miss Bornstein, a bright and lively schoolteacher who is determined that Peekay will win a scholarship to a good school and thereafter to Oxford University.

Peekay’s ambition, his clear determination, courage and intelligence, and his remarkable friends are to set him on a brilliant course – he wins success as a boxer, as a student and as a natural leader among his peers. His partnership wth astute fellow-student Hymie brings him money, too, something he has never had before. And the black people come almost to worship him as Onoshobishobi Ingelesi (which translates as “Tadpole Angel” but which we are given to understand is far more reverent in the original Zulu).

Until, one day, something changes. Peekay determines that he must strike out for his own independence. His detemination to win at all costs, even the goals he sets himself, he sees (apart from being welterweight champion of the world, of course) as stemming from a sort of camouflage that he uses to survive the system, to beat the system. Something that grew out of the extreme, violent bullying and abuse he received during that first, terrible year away from home, at the hands primarily of an older pupil who we know only as the Judge.

The book ends rather abruptly. Peekay does appear to conquer his demons. But does he truly “find himself”? Does he ever make it to be welterweight champion of the world? What, actually, does he do with his life? We are not told. Maybe the author got up to 600 pages and decided enough was enough.

It worked for him – so I’ll try it too. This review is over.

Here’s an Amazon link
I got mine from the library.

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