on 24 January 2012
A straightforward historical novel offering a dramatic retelling of Wolesley's expedition of 1884/5 to rescue General Gordon, besieged at Khartoum. Readable and page-turning though it is, I had expected something more layered and nuanced from Slovo (like her Orange-shortlisted 'Ice Road' which I enjoyed immensely). It was interesting to read about an event in history I knew little about, but I don't feel the novel had a great deal to say beyond that.
Khartoum, we are told, is a large city full of bazaars and people yet I never got any sense of it being more than a small fort; similarly Slovo tells us about the trek across the desert yet fails to convey any sense of scale. In terms of the plot and themes I felt there were lots of missed opportunities. Overall, it passed the time well enough but was rather forgettable.
on 17 January 2012
An Honourable Man
I really liked Gillian Slovo's Ice Road. It was a titanic book, an absolutely gripping epic. I bought this on the back of Ice Road and was disappointed. It's pedestrian and a bit of a chore to read. A poor cross between Kipling and Faber. I'm reading her earlier book, The Betyrayal, at the moment. This has it's faults but is a much better read.
This historical novel is set in 1885, where General Gordon is besieged at Khartoum. The story is told from the point of view of three people - Will, a young boy who has accompanied General Gordon, Dr John Clarke who has joined the expedition to try to rescue Gordon and Clarke's wife Mary, who is resentful at his leaving her alone. Mary is a very emotional young woman, her very un-Victorian demeanour causing her husband John to sometimes fetch her a small dose of laudanum to calm her. Unfortunately, he has left her isolated and with the beginning of a drug addiction.
During the novel we follow events at Khartoum, with Wolseley's expedition and back in London. I felt that both Will and Mary worked well as characters, although I found John Clarke's motives a little harder to fathom. However, it was nice to read a historical novel that is set firmly in the time of the story and does not use the current vogue for having a dual storyline in the past and the present. I also really enjoyed the use of a running argument in the Times letter pages between journalist William Stead and A Bartholomew, the Chairman of the Huddersfield Anti-Slavery Society about the events in Sudan and the campaign to try to rescue General Gordon. This gave a clear view of the different viewpoints at the time in a way which made sense, but was not obstructive to the plot.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It is not a time period I know much about, but I found the characters and events very interesting. I have never read anything by Gilliam Slovo before, but I am keen to discover more of her work.
Gillian Slovo's novel weaves together three different, though linked, stories. The first is based on an actual event, the fall of Khartoum and the creation of that supreme imperial martyr, General Gordon. The second is a tale of a fictional doctor, John Clarke, who accompanied the Gordon relief expedition in its trek across the desert, winning a victory against the Mahdists at Abu Clea that compensated a little for the disaster at Khartoum, but failing to save Gordon himself. Finally, on the domestic level, the battle of the doctor's wife Mary with the personal demon unleashed by her addiction to laudanum.
Uniting these very different stories is the common thread of self-delusion in the search for personal fulfilment. Slovo's Gordon is a man hovering on the brink of madness as the siege tightens around his beleaguered forces; his irascible, inconsistent and wholly irrational behaviour is a prelude to his surrender to the attraction of the sacrifice of self in the linked causes of Christianity and Empire. Dr Clarke, not a militarily man, is nevertheless stirred by patriotic feelings to respond to the call to save Gordon, while his wife is seduced by the treacherous cure for unhappiness offered by a highly addictive drug and initially prescribed by her husband as a wrong-headed act of kindness. In the background, the real-life journalist C T Stead acts as an evil genie, luring the nation into embarking upon an ultimately fruitless task, and influencing in some way or other each of main characters in this book. The quoted excerpts from editorials and comments in his `Pall Mall Gazette' give a flavour of his style of journalistic propaganda that provoked such a blizzard of claims and counter-claims in the contemporary London Press during the autumn and winter of 1885-6.
This book is a major achievement as a work of historical fiction, successful alike at depicting the gilded cage in which Mary as a middle-class housewife, is confined, like her pet canary; and the raucous and dangerous world of `low life' London into which she is drawn in her search for freedom. These pictures of London in winter make a stark contrast with the scenes set in the Sudan, with blazing hot days, constant thirst, camels plodding through desert sands, and the ever-present danger of ambush by Mahdist forces. We are reminded throughout about the ineptitude of the military planners, including even the redoubtable Wolseley, stuck in his base camp between the Nile cataracts.
A fine historical novel that enshrines a timeless message about otherwise well-intentioned individuals who allow their judgement to be affected by wishful thinking into believing, with all sincerity, that they are doing `the right thing'.
on 10 February 2012
Don't try to read this book on the tube as you may miss your stop! That's what happened to me as I was so immersed in the story of John Clarke, a London physician who volunteers for duty on a British expedition to Khartoum in 1884, and finds himself delirious and nearly dying of thirst during a camel trek across the Sahara, that I lost track of where I was. Clarke's gripping story is only one of the narrative strands in this novel. We also follow his wife's descent into laudanum addiction and the lower depths of Victorian London as she struggles to cope with her husband's absence. And Slovo takes us inside the gates of the besieged city of Khartoum as General Gordon attempts to hold off the forces of the Mahdi. Cutting with dizzying rapidity from drawing room to desert to the increasingly desperate plight of Gordon and his men, An Honourable Man is a thrilling ride from start to finish.
This is an historical fiction novel, set in 1884 when General `Chinese' Gordon is besieged in the doomed city of Khartoum. The story is divided between General Gordon and a young boy, Will, whom he has brought along for the adventure when he was rescued by the philanthropic General. He has a thing for young boys/men and did a lot of charitable work for waifs and strays. I must say Gillian Slovo does a brilliant job of conveying the complex character that General Gordon was supposed to be and I like the Will Character too.
We also have the story of the young Doctor John Clarke and his wife Mary. He has volunteered to join the Wolseley relief effort at the base camp hospital, but has promised Mary he would not go into battle. She on the other hand has very little to do so whilst alone she starts dipping into his dispensary for a daily fix or two of laudanum. Once her husband gets to the Sudan, peer pressure and the taste for adventure see him volunteering for the relief column which will lead him to take part in the famous battle of Abu Klea.
The closer that help gets to Khartoum, the lower the food stocks and morale drop in the feted city; and the dreaded slaughter from the Mahdi and his men is all but inevitable.
Gillian Slovo has written twelve previous novels and I must say I rather enjoyed this so will have to dip into another one or two. I am a bit of a history buff so could not fathom why some facts were spot on and others a bit on the hearsay side. This is because she has deliberately changed and altered things to fit in with her story, this is after all fiction. She writes in a clear and accessible way and treats her characters with a lot of sympathy and all are well rounded enough to be able to engage the reader. This took me a while to get into but once I did it was really a good old romp. I did have issues with some of the editing though as some chapters seem to end mid- thought and I wondered if I had a misprinted copy, but that tended to stop about half way through.
This is a solid historically based drama, but despite the backdrop this is not an action fest and most certainly not a period or romantic drama, so if that is your thing then this should find a nice spot on your bookshelf; that is after you've read it preferably.
This is an intelligent novel which asks probing questions about what it means to be `honourable' - and how what is admirable may slide into magnificent self-delusion and tragedy. Set against General Gordon's doomed last stand at the siege of Khartoum, this concerns itself with questions about imperialism, nationalism, jingoism from the press, and war politics at home.
Despite the big (and contemporary) themes, I found this a disappointing book, and the characters, mostly, difficult to engage with. Mary, especially, the volatile, opium-addicted Victorian wife feels too constructed to be meaningful, and her dangerous journey into the sub-strata of Victorian society too obvious a parallel to her husband John's perilous journey through the desert.
More successful is Gordon himself: superb in his delusions, increasingly unstable, determined to be a martyr to British imperialism - yet meeting his inevitable death with some kind of grace.
Parts of this novel feel rich and gripping, but there are also long stretches of what felt like plodding narrative.
So a mixed reaction from me - this is clever, well-written historical fiction which uses a Victorian setting to cast light on contemporary concerns about war, about the politics of interventionism, about the role of the media/press, about how idealism and good intentions might not lead to the desired outcome. And yet, despite all the good stuff, this is, in parts, a tedious read.
'John would have preferred to say goodbye at home. It was Mary who had insisted on accompanying him to Waterloo station, the better to fix his departure in her mind.'
Gillian Slovo starts her novel by moving between the points of view of Mary, and her husband, John, who she is seeing off as part of an expeditionary force to relieve the nine month siege of Khartoum by the Mahdi in the Sudan. General Gordon is besieged with the third narrator, his unofficial batman Will, 'waiting for Wolseley's regiments to gallop across the shimmering land to his rescue.' John is a civilian doctor and Mary 'too prone to foolish questions, sudden laughter and strange tears' makes him promise that he will stay back from the fighting and goes back home to worry about her possible addiction to laudanum.
Slovo's multi narrative novel explores themes of empire, heroism and addiction. The danger with multi-narrative novels is that some narrators are less engaging. In this case I found Mary less than convincing and was impressed by Slovo's imagination of the siege and the gruelling journey for Dr John Clarke.
on 9 February 2012
I found An Honorable Man a real page-turner. The scenes on the road to Khartoum are especially vivid. It's an intoxicating read. The characters are so sad and isolated - heading to their doom. It's also a piece of history I knew nothing about, but the real interest is the people, their interior lives, and their distant relationships with each other.
What fate befell General Gordon in Khartoum in 1884-1885 and the failure of Wolseley's attempt to lift the siege and rescue Gordon are matters of factual record and there are no surprises for readers. However the fictional story of `An Honourable Man' has 2 additional threads, based first on a London doctor attached to the relief expedition, and secondly on the somewhat unstable wife he leaves behind. Author Gillian Slovo skilfully interweaves stories of these 3 complex protagonists - Gordon, doctor and wife. All suffer forms of isolation with Gordon becoming increasingly disturbed as the remaining `white' apart from his young batman, the doctor as a civilian amongst professional soldiers, and his lonely wife who becomes addicted to laudanum yet seeks to help others.
Readers know the factual outcome whereby Gordon will not be saved, but narrative is thought provoking over whether his was a noble stand or an act of folly. Along with other protagonists all are well intentioned yet exhibit poor judgement and are self-deluded. For her fictional characters the author provides excellent descriptions of British imperial warfare with fighting in hostile conditions in the African desert, she comments on Christianity and Islam, and she gives insights to social history via the place of women in Victorian society and social class divisions. As a work of fiction the suspense element comes from increasing doubts that the doctor and his wife can survive their predicaments. The factual element stems from cleverly inserted extracts from The Pall Mall Gazette, The Times and other sources to create an authentic atmosphere and build up tension as the author exposes self-doubt and arrogance together with idealism and service. She explores desires to be good, but there are no absolutes to what it is to be honourable. `An Honourable Man' is a compelling and gripping story - and it stimulates introspection.