Lively book visits Victorian England and South Africa

2007-12-12 00:00

TOM Bedlam was born an urchin in Victorian England. His mother was a worker in a grim factory in southwest London and it seems that he is destined to follow in her footsteps, especially after his wastrel of a thespian father William turns up and steals the money she has been putting aside for Tom’s education.

Her death is the saving of Tom. His grandfather, who had disowned Tom’s mother on account of her marriage to William, reappears and sends the boy off to boarding school. It is not a particularly happy experience, Victorian schools being what they were, and the death of his friend at the hands of a school bully results in Tom being sent off to finish his schooling in Scotland. There he becomes a doctor, as he had long dreamed of doing. However, in order to do so he makes a Faustian pact that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Determined to create the family he longed for in his childhood, Tom and his bride Lizzy set off for South Africa, where he is to work in a hospital in Port Elizabeth. The Boer War intrudes on the idyll with an ugliness and brutality that Tom finds hard to accept. When it is over he and Lizzy move to Johannesburg with their four children where he establishes himself in private practice.

When the patriotic fervour that accompanies the outbreak of World War 1 threatens to destroy his family, Tom is forced to return to the UK and to confront his demons in an attempt to stop his underage son from being sent to the trenches in France.

This novel clips along at a brisk pace as it spans the best part of 60 years. It is moving, entertaining and whimsical, and shot through with lively humour — a great read for the holidays.

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