Book review – Historical page-turner

2012-11-23 10:43

“The ball hummed past the captain’s ear, buzzing in the air like a live thing and for the moment the cicadas stopped.”

James Whyle’s The Book of War opens like any historical novel, but after a few pages, we still don’t quite know where we are.

Coarse characters in brutal, beautifully written landscapes engage in ambushes and slaughter.

They are sailors, settlers, criminals, drunks, a band of “irregulars” under British command. And then there are the looming “heathens”.

Eventually, we realise we are in the Cape Colony during the relentless 100-year Xhosa wars, but Whyle’s nomenclature is archaic and foreign. Its estrangement makes his story universal.

The reduction of context, a peeling away of traditional historical narrative, leaves his reader with a surprising new set of tools to read the clash of cultures that finally subjugated the Ciskei Xhosa.

We’re drawn to a 15-year-old boy who we will only ever know as “the kid”. The heathens are armed, prophets speak, reinforcements arrive and earth is scorched.

Even with no back story to the characters and a plot that circles like a vulture, the amazing thing is that this is a page-turner.

It is an antidote to the Wilbur Smith way of doing things. Actually, it is to the historical novel what David Lynch was to the TV drama.

Yet Whyle never employs the mystical, only a stubborn poetic realism.

I couldn’t shake this book from my head for a few days. Not least, I’m sure, because – like Whyle – I was raised in Eastern Cape, where these wars played out. These colonising savages are my people.

“We are living the stories planted in us,” writes Ben Okri.

Violent nations are born from violence, says Whyle. But more than that, in his debut novel we understand that human beings, even dressed in finery, are animals.

The Book of War
by James Whyle (Jacana)
280 pages; R135

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