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A Compelling Novel set in Zimbabwe just after independence
on 11 February 2010
This novel is set in Zimbabwe in the early years of the Mugabe government after a long, bitter bush war and struggle for black independence. The story takes place at a prestigious boys private boarding school with traditions steeped in the past (the house names at the school are all former colonial heroes). In an era of peace, freedom and hope for the new Zimbabwe the school is struggling to adapt to the changed environment and the admission of black teachers and students. However, a significant number of its pupils are the sons of white farmers who were at the frontline of the 'lost' bush war and the beginning of the possible confiscation of white farms. For them the new Zimbabwe serves only to breed resentment, reinforce their deep racial prejudices and fears for their livelihood.
Add in the traditional boarding school elements of bullying, deference, loneliness and the struggle to make friends and alliances and there are all the ingredients to craft an interesting novel.
Thrown into this mix and starting at the school as a junior, is a young English schoolboy, Robert Jacklin, son of idealistic but dysfunctional parents starting a new life and career in Zimbabwe. Wrenched from his schooling in rural England and oblivious to the racial tensions of his new country, he is jettisoned into this alien and hostile environment. Desperate to return 'home', he struggles to fit in, and the story deals with his dilemma to find his courage to defend his new black friend against the racist bullying but at the same time build alliances with some of the stronger (and nastier) elements to protect himself from violent abuse such as from the conniving and manipulative Ivan.
Some of those alliances lead to his involvement in a dangerous and violent plot to try to 'turn the clock back' to before independence and his internal battle to extricate himself from this plot and dig deep to find the courage to do what he knows is right, taking on the hateful Ivan, with no support from his parents or teachers.
This is a very compelling debut novel. The author, Jason Wallace, manages to evoke the African setting, scenery, language and hope and anxiety of the period with great skill and in a way that makes the book fast paced and captivating. The characters are rich and complex and are well developed in the context of the era they are set in. For example that complexity even draws sympathy from the reader for Ivan in certain contexts, such as the ease with which he plays football with his father's black farm workers' children. There are other endearing characters such as Weekend, the telephone operator, who gets to know Jacklin, on account of the many desperate telephone calls back home to his parents, and who in a sense represents the average aspirant black Zimbabwean who held great hopes for his future in the new Zimbabwe in those years but who in the end probably personified the real losers in the long corrupt Mugabe regime.
The final chapter of the book, after an enthralling crescendo in the plot, is poignant and thought provoking. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in that part of the world or that era.