One of the things that I like about biographies of political figures is that you get a more personal view of the times they lived in. Here one gets twOne of the things that I like about biographies of political figures is that you get a more personal view of the times they lived in. Here one gets two for the price of one -- Walter and Albertina Sisulu were a married couple forced to live much of their life apart, and for several decades it was rare that there would be a time when there wasn't at least one member of the Sisulu family in jail or banned.
Walter Sisulu was Secretary Gerneral of the African National Congress (ANC) at the time it was banned in 1960, and resumed his organising activities when he emerged from prison and it was unbanned 30 years later. Albertina was a leader of the ANC Women's League, and was in jail, detained without trial, and banned for many years.
They belonged to my parents' generation, but the second half of their life story was about times that I myself have lived through, and so casts new light on those times for me. It was written by their daughter-in-law, Elinor Sisulu, who knew them personally, and so they come alive in a way that is not possible in biographies written by impersonal outsiders. And perhaps because Walter was a political prisoner, the securocrats kept much of his correspondence from jail, and so, even though what he wrote was censored, there is something very warm and human that comes across in his letters to family and friends.
On reading the story of the Sisulus, I am acutely aware of how the leadership of the ANC, and of the country, has deteriorated since then. We will not see the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu again, more's the pity. The time that Albertina Sisulu was a Member of Parliament, from 1994-1999, was a high point in our country's history, though we did not realise it at the time. It is sad to see how much things have declined.
But the Sisulus would be the last to claim the credit for that. They believed in party discipline, and collective leadership. They believed that leaders must be responsible to the community, and this comes out in the sharp contrast between the disciplined and humble Albertina Sisulu and the publicity-seeking loose cannon Winnie Mandela. There were events involving Winnie Mandela that received a great deal of publicity at the time, such as her notorious football club. One did not know what to believe in the media reports, so I held my own counsel at the time, because judgements based on incomplete reports are usually wrong. Albertina Sisulu held her own counsel too, but now the story can be told.
One of the things that struck me was that in a sense people like Nelson Mandela, the Sisulus and the Tambos were larger than life, and this seemed to contrast with the idea of collective leadership and being responsible to the community, in fact collective leadership works best with people who stand out from the crowd, yet see themselves as part of it.
One small point that shows how far the ANC has fallen is that when Walter Sisulu was invited to visit the People's Republic of China, and the latter asked him not to visit Taiwan, he refused, saying that he went where he was sent by the ANC, and not by the hosts of one of the places he was visiting. The contrast between that and the present ANC givernment's refusal to give visas to the Dalai Lama could not be more stark.
In some ways the book is also a family history, and here there is a shortcoming. There are pedigree charts showing the ancestry of Walter and Albertina Sisulu (though not of Walter's father, who played little part in his life), but there is no chart of their descendants, and as they had numerous grandchildren a family tree chart (or even several) showing them and their relationships would also have been useful.
It is also a love story. One of the lasting effects of apartheid was to destroy family life, especially for black people. But in spite of having to live almost half of their married life apart, Walter and Albertina Sisulu were an outstanding example of family life, and life as a married couple.
It is, however, a readable and well-researched book, and for anyone interested in South African history from 1940-2000, it's a must read. ...more
I've been reading or re-reading quite a lot of books by Lawrence George Green lately, mainly because of my interest in family and local history, and II've been reading or re-reading quite a lot of books by Lawrence George Green lately, mainly because of my interest in family and local history, and I've been compiling an index to some of them. He is, or was, a raconeur and teller of travellers tales, which are often interesting and entertaining, if not always accurate. He was a journalist, and his books often read like a collection of newspaper features, which they probably are. He sometimes recycles stories, so that they appear in more than one of his books.
Secret Africa is one of his earlier books, and was rather disappointing. It was written before the Second World War, and reprinted in 1974, I thought I might index it, but discovered that there is nothing much worth indexing. Some chapters read like a lazy journalist's rewrites of press releases, the sort of advertorials one sometimes sees on TV. The only thing interesting about them was that they are 80 years old, so one gets a view of a different period. The title, Secret Africa is misleading. There is nothing secret about most of it, it's just PR stuff that people want you to know.
Even the more personal chapters -- a description of a trip to Mauritius, for example -- have the feeling of plugging a message from the sponsor, and are full of racisim and snobbery as well.
The final chapter, a description of gold mining in Johannesburg, is full of statistics, so that it reads in places like a company report -- how many tons of ore it takes to produce an ounce of gold, how much bars of gold were worth, how much it cost to sink a shaft, and of course the marvelous accommodation, food, recreational and healthcare facilities provided by the benevolent mining companies for their native mineworkers. Perhaps I'm unduly cynical about this, because at the same time I've been reading the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu by their daughter-in-law Elinor Sisulu, which describes how they helped to organise a miners' strike to protest against the poor housing, pay, food and all the other stuff that Green praises from the PR blurb.
Lawrence George Green's best work was written in the 1950s and 1960s, and his earlier and later work seems to be dreck. This one definitely falls into that category. It seems to have been written before he hit his stride, and in the later ones he seems to be coasting on empty. ...more
When I read the blurb on the cover, I expected a kind of Darth Vader story, a child who had lots of promise, but grew up and turned to the dark side.When I read the blurb on the cover, I expected a kind of Darth Vader story, a child who had lots of promise, but grew up and turned to the dark side. About halfway through I began to change my mind, and thought it might be about something else. But to say much more would be to give away too much of the plot.
It's about love and hatred, and love that suffocates and love that turns into hatred. It's about jealousy and revenge, despair and hope.
I can't say much more than that without giving away too much of the plot. ...more
A couple of months ago I read Youth by J.M. Coetzee about an aspiring South African writer who goes to London. I felt that there was something missingA couple of months ago I read Youth by J.M. Coetzee about an aspiring South African writer who goes to London. I felt that there was something missing in the book (my review here). I couldn't quite put a finger on the missing bit, so I thought I would read Tropic of Cancer, which is the story of an aspiring American writer living in Paris.
Since both are semi-autobiographical novels they invite comparison, though perhaps it isn't doing justice to Miller to compare him with another writer, but it's the theme that interests me, rather than the individual novels. They were written 30 years apart -- Paris in the 1930s, London in the 1960s, and that in itself makes quite a big difference. It is hard to think that the 1960s are further away from us now than the 1930s were then. Perhaps it is because I was alive in the 1960s and thought that the 1930s were impossibly remote. Perhaps it is because WWII intervened, and we are living in a different world.
But with Henry Miller it doesn't matter much that we are living in a different world, because his books in a sense are timeless. In reading Tropic of Cancer the main thing that seemed different and out of place was that males wore hats, and felt uncomfortable if they went out hatless.
The first book of Miller's that I read was The Colossus of Maroussi, and it is still the one I like the best. One of the things I liked most about it was his descriptions of places, and there are some good descriptive passages in Tropic of Cancer too.
When it was first published Tropic of Cancer and its companion volume Tropic of Capricorn were banned in most English-speaking countries. Even when they were unbanned in the 1960s they were regarded by many as "dirty" books, because of the explicit sexual descriptions. In the 1980s, of course, no novel was complete without such things -- what was forbidden in the 1930s became compulsory 50 years later, so Miller's book no longer shocks.
People might find it distasteful for other reasons, though; it is sexist, and there is an undertone of racism as well. Some have said that the book is misogynist, but it is not so much mysoginist as sexist. Miller doesn't hate women, he just doesn't have much use for them, or rather he just has one use for them -- as sexual objects, and that is how he describes them all the way through the book. They are not people, they are genitals with mouths and legs attached.
But most of his descriptions of males were also pretty dehumanising. Perhaps that's why I like Miller best for his descriptions of places, rather than of people. ...more
I've read several books by Martin Cruz Smith, all whodunits featuring detective Arkady Renko, mostly set in Moscow in the late 20th or early 21st centI've read several books by Martin Cruz Smith, all whodunits featuring detective Arkady Renko, mostly set in Moscow in the late 20th or early 21st century. This one is different, as it is set in 19th-century England, in Lancashire, in the mining town of Wigan, to be precise.
Some of the Renko books felt a bit surreal to me, but no more so than Bulgakov's The master and Margarita, but this one felt a bit more jarring. I've been to Moscow, and I've never been to Wigan, but somehow the Wigan setting seemed less authentic than the Moscow ones, not so much the place itself, as the people in it. The story was interesting enough, and made me want to read on to see what happened, but it somehow felt inauthentic, as if it was set in some alternative universe, like Philip Pullman's His dark materials.
The descriptions of coal mining were authentic, but it was the events and conversations on the surface that seemed out of place. A coal miner in Lancashire in 1872 likening something to a volcano? How many of them would have seen a volcano, or even a picture of one?
A zealous Evangelical clergyman speaking of Low Mass, or any kind of "Mass" at all? Such a thing would have been anathema to any Church of England Evangelical in that period. It's a bit like Pullman's use of terms like "Magisterium", which clearly means something different in an alternative universe.
One is left wondering whether the surrealism is intended or not. The protagonist too is a bit surreal, an Indiana Jones-like character, but some of the other things in the book give the impression that it is intended to be a historical novel, authentic in time and place. It feels like 20th-century characters transported into a 19th-centry setting.
A Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa -- a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.
I would like to be able tA Bildungsroman about growing up in apartheid South Africa -- a white boy at school, then an army conscript, and afterwards.
I would like to be able to say that this book "tells it like it was" in the same way that Andre Brink's A Dry White Season does, but two things make me hesitate to say that. One is that I never served in the army, so I cannot say that the middle section, which deals with that, is accurate. Secondly, there are several inaccuracies about known things in the book, which cast doubt upon the accuracy of some of the other parts,
The inaccuracties bothered me. One of the most egregious errors is a reference to the Australian national rugby team as the All Blacks, Another was a reference to a Xhosa chief, Makhana, which goes on to say that Makhana wasn't his real name, but a reference to his left-handedness. There is a footnote to the effect that his real name was Nxele. But it is Nxele, and not Mahkana, which is a referwence to left-handedness.
At first sight these errors (and there are several more) are not about matters central to the plot, and one might attribute them to careless writing and editing. But on second thoughts, they relate to something that iscentral to the plot and is embodied in the very title of the book. The protagonist, we are told, has an excellent mewmory, and at one point, when he testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the reliability of his memory is both demonstrated and brought into question.
If the protagonist's memory is crucial to the plot, then perhaps these errors scattered through the book (told in the first persion) are intended as hints that the protagonist's memory was not as good as he claimed it was, and therefore, far from "telling it like it is", the book is a kind of bizarre fantasy, reminiscient of Jean Genet's The Balcony.
So though I wanted to give it four or five stars, in the end I gave it only three. ...more
Until about halfway through this book, I wasn't sure whether I was going to like it or not. It's about a bunch of kids aged about 12 or 13 living in aUntil about halfway through this book, I wasn't sure whether I was going to like it or not. It's about a bunch of kids aged about 12 or 13 living in an in-between place somewhere between the city and farmlands. I lived in such a place when I was that age, so to that extent it felt familiar, but I wasn't aware of the existence of such a bunch of messed-up people. That doesn't mean that they weren't there in the place where I grew up, just that I wasn't aware of them. And I wouldn't have dared to talk to my teachers the way those kids did.
The protagonist is one of the kids, Owen Brand, who has just moved to the area and so has to make friends from scratch, and one of the things that is rather confusing is that his viewpoint is in the first person, while the others are in the third person, but when he is just with one other person, and the viewpoint switches, one somtimes loses track of who is talking.
The messed-up people are just about everyone, friends, neighbours, teachers, family members. Part of the interest of the story is how Owen learns to cope with this, and how he and his family help to improve things for his girlfiend, who has an abusive father and an abused mother, and has learned to cope with adults by keeping them at arm's length.
So there are good things to balance out the bad things, and nothing's perfect, but that's true to life too. In some ways Owen seems to represent the idea of coinherence of Charles Williams, with people taking on the burdens of others. Williams appeared to think that people could or would do this consciously and deliberately, but Owen does it almost unconsciously.
In the end I liked the book, and liked it a lot. Perhaps I'll read it again, because it's the kind of book where there are lots of things you don't see on the first reading, and perhaps not on the second or the third either. ...more
This book was billed as a Sophie's world of spirituality, when we bought it so long ago that I could not rememvber. That's probably why we bought it,This book was billed as a Sophie's world of spirituality, when we bought it so long ago that I could not rememvber. That's probably why we bought it, because we had enjoyed reading [booK:Sophie's world] and thought we might enjoy this one, but I never got round to reading it.
Then with a cleanout and rearrangement of our bookshelves it came to light again, and I thought perhaps I'd better have another go at reading it.
The first chapter reminded me of why I had never got any further on the first attempt. Theo is a child. How old? About 6 or 7, I think. Later it turns out that he is 14. Describing a teenager as if he were a much younger child makes the character of the protagonist seem a bit shaky for a start. But this time I gritted my teeth and ploughed on. Theo does mature somewhat as the story progresses, but the first impression is off-putting.
Theo has a mysterious illness and though no one knows what it is, the prognosis is not good, so his rich (very rich) aunt decides to take him on a world tour, as a last fling before he dies, or a special treat in case he lives. But it's not your average world tour, it's a tour of different religions.
So it turns out to be a rather didactic book, teaching about different religions, and trying to sugar-coat the pill by wrapping it in a very thin and threadbare plot. Because the story needs to follow the syllabus, the plot line often seems very contrived.
It covers a fair variety of religions, and most of the way through it seems to lead one down the path of syncretism, showing how each religion incorporates elements of other religions, or has points of resemblance to other religions. This led me to expect that it would probably lead up to the most syncretistic religion of all, Baha'i, but somerwhat surprisingly it doesn't. I can't recall that Baha'i is even mentioned once.
It covers most other major religious traditions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam (and returns in later chapters to deal with different aspects of them). It covers Indian religions, including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. It deals with Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, Shinto, Chinese religion (Taoism, Confuscianism and ancestor veneration), African traditional religion, Brazilian syncretism and even Mormons. But not Baha'i.
I couldn't help feeling that the treatment of some religions was rather distorted, with some trivial things included, and some important stuff left out.
Theo is half-Greek and so has an Orthodox grandmother (well, half-Orthodox, because she is syncretistic too, mixing Orthodoxy with faith in the Olympian gods). And the treatment of Orthodoxy is pretty skimpy, saying it is all about sorrow and suffering. There are detailed descriptions of rituals for some religions, at least three different rituals for the African traditional religions, but there is no comparable description of the rituals of Orthodox Christianity, not even a memorial service. All there is is a lot of guff about sorrow and suffering.
There seem to be similar gaps in the treatment of some of the other religions.
Sophie's world works better as a kind of fictionalised exploration of philosophy, but Theo's odyssey falls a bit flat. It doesn't really work as fiction, and it doesn't even succeed in its didactic purpose. When I was about the age of Theo in the book, I had a book called Faiths of many lands. It was a straightforward presentation, and I learnede more from it than I did from this book.
At the same age I also read a work of fiction that told me far more about some religions than this one -- Kim by Rudyard Kipling. It was aimed at promoting British Imperialism, but it had a better story line, and presented religions more interestingly too.
I picked this book off the library shelf and read the blurb, and decided to read it because there seemed to be parallels with my own youth.
What did II picked this book off the library shelf and read the blurb, and decided to read it because there seemed to be parallels with my own youth.
What did I hope for? To make sense of my own youth? To make sense of things that happened to me?
The protagonist in the book is a mathematics student at the University of Cape Town who wants to go to London to become a, writer, a poet. In the 1960s he goes, but having arrived in London he needs to get a job in order to live, and with his mathematical qualifications he manages to get one as a computer programmer with IBM. In his spare time he sits in the British Museum doing research for his writing, and later for a thesis for which he is offered a bursary.
But gradually loneliness and mediocrity and boredom squeeze all the creativity out of him and he has less and less to say.
And I could see parallels with my own life. Why should I write about my own life? It's not about me, it's about the book. But I picked up the book thinking it was about me, or that it might tell me something about me, so in a sense it is about me, and I compare myself with the protagonist in the book.
I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and studied there from 1963 to 1965, majoring in Theology and Biblical Studies, with a minor in History. The Anglican bishop of Natal had found me a place for further study at St Chad's College, Durham, for the post-graduate Diploma in Theology.
So, like the protagonist in Youth, I went to the UK in January 1966. The UK academic year only begins in September so I got a job driving buses in London to fill in the time, and I stayed in a lonely bed-sit, and for six months spent much of my spare time in my room in Streatham feeling alienated. Like the protagonist I felt a bit concerned about the Vietnam War. He wrote to the Chinese embassy and offered to go and teach English. I went to a couple of demos, one of them by accident.
So much for the similarities, But there were also differences.
The book tells nothing of the protagonist's journey, how he left, his first impressions on arriving, or anything like that. Just that he was glad to be in London, and glad to be out of the stifling restrictions of South Africa, and planned never to return. He went by sea, because he landed at Southampton. Though he seems to have been uninvolved in political activities in South Africa, he did not approve of the Nationalist government, I wondered how, having majored in Mathematics, he was allowed to enrol for postgraduate studies in English literature, with a thesis on Ford Madox Ford. In my experience South African universities don't work like that, but J.M. Coetzee was a professor of English literature at the University of Cape Town for several years, so perhaps he knows something that I don't.
I was a bit more involved in political activities in my final year at university than the guy in the book, and in the middle of my final exams got an official warning under the Suppression of Communism Act that if I did not desist from activities that "further or are calculated to further any of the objects of communism" action would be taken against me. Most of my friends who had had such warnings got banning orders a few months later, so, in view of my plans to go and study in the UK I dropped my idea of a political holiday, and after my last exam went to Johannesburg and worked as a bus driver, saving money to pay for the boat fare overseas. Like the protagonist in the book, I wanted to go by sea.
I drove buses and did as much overtime as I could to save money for the boat fare. Nevertheless, one afternoon as I was about to go to work I got a phone call from a Detective Sergeant van den Heever, of, as he said, the CID. He wanted to come and see me. I told him I was going to work, and would arrange to see him in the morning, after my overtime. I thought he could only want me for one (or both) of two things: to confiscate my passport or give me a banning order, either of which would scupper my plans for overseas study.
After consultation with friends, I decided it would be best to be out of the country when Detective Sergent van den Heever wanted to see me the next morning, so I drove through the night to Bulawayo in UDI Rhodesia in my mother's car, with a friend who would bring the car back. We crossed the border at Beit Bridge when it opened at dawn, and by the time we got to Bulawayo there was a message from my mother to say she had booked me on a flight to London. So I boarded the plane late in the afternoon, and arrived in London the following day, feeling homesick, like an exile.
Unlike the bloke in the book, my alienation set in right away. I hadn't expected culture shock, because after all they spoke English, there, didn't they? But it was all so sudden and so strange. I suspect many South Africans who left South Africa in a hurry in the 1960s had similar experiences to mine, but the book mentions nothing of that.
One of the first things I had to do after arriving was to apply for an Aliens Registration Certificate. And when I got it, it said that I was not permitted to take employment, paid or unpaid, without the permission of the Minister of Labour. So how was I to survive for eight months until the university term began? The protagonist in the book faced nothing like that.
So I began to ask how I could get that condition waived, so I could get a job. Well, they said, if you come to us showing you have a written job offer, you can apply for that to be altered. But no one was prepared to offer a job and then wait for the bureaucracy to grant permission. It was the classic Catch 22, just like black people in South Africa had to face under the pass laws, but there it was in their own country. I knew about the effexta of the pass laws from being told about it and from reading, but now I was experiencing it first hand. Useful experience if one wants to be a writer and write a book. That's what the protagonist in the book says too.
After a number of unsuccessful attempts, I worked out how to play the system. I went to London Transport, applied for a job as a bus driver, noting that there was a labour exchange just across the road. Once I and the other applicants had been definitely offered the job, I asked the bloke at London Transport to sign the paper from the Ministry of Labour saying that employing me would not deprive a British citizen of a job. That was unlikely -- London Transport had more vacancies (about 7000) than the entire running staff employed by the Johannesburg Transport Department (about 1700).
While the others all went off to tea I scuttled across the road to the labour exchange, showed them the paper with the job offer, and the application form from the Home Office for permission to take employment, and said "please sign there and put your stamp on it". The bloke behind the counter looked at me as if I was mad, but did what I asked, and I went back across the road and joined the others for tea.
Having passed out as a driver (and yes, driving double-decker buses on the skid pan was great fun), I had to choose a garage. I said Peckham or Lewisham, which were the closest to some South African friends I might want to visit in my time off. But they said, no, it has to be where you live. I said I don't live anywhere. I'm staying with a bloke who put me up out of the kindness of his heart, but now wants me out of his guest room. But that didn't wash. Brixton was closest to his place so I must go there
I looked at the notices offering rooms to let. There was one with an Indian landlord. I went and knocked on the door. While I was waiting for someone to answer the door of the next door house opened (the houses were all built up close together -- I hadn't yet learned that they were called terraces), and an English woman asked what I wanted. I said they had advertised a room to let. She said, "They're Indians, you know. I wouldn't like you to stay there." I was gobsmacked (well, not really, "gobsmacked" only came into the language about 20 years later, but you know what I mean). I thought I'd left such racism behind in South Africa, and one of the cool things about being in Britain was that I could have an Indian landlord and the government wouldn't do a thing to stop me. I hadn't taken nosy neighbours into account.
That one fell through, but the next one I tried advertised an African landlady. That felt like closer to home. She turned out to be from Sierra Leone, which is a long way from South Africa, but at least halfway home. She was Mrs Emily Williams, and her daughter Joyce was in her last year at high school and hoping to start at an English university at the same time as I was. The next door neighbours there were English too, but a lot more friendly.
So the book was my story, but not my story. Perhaps another book needs to be written. Perhaps several other books need to be written.
The trouble with reading these Roy Grace books out of order is that the baby keeps popping back into the womb, and in this case it is made more compliThe trouble with reading these Roy Grace books out of order is that the baby keeps popping back into the womb, and in this case it is made more complicated by flashbacks to 12 years before, so keeping track of the action gets a bit complicated.
It's nevertheless a readable crime novel, though more of a police procedural than a whodunit -- the reader knows more than the police, and so it is easier to work out who the perpetrator is.
Roy Grace also seems to make some serious mistakes this time. Saying what they are would be giving too much of the plot away, but even though the reader has more clues than the police, Grace seems to miss some of the clues that he does have.
There are also some oddities of language. Is Peter James American, like Elizabeth George? I thought cars in the UK had number plates rather than licence plates.
One of the things about growing up in South Africa is that one reads a lot of books published elsewhere in the world, and so the settings are unfamiliOne of the things about growing up in South Africa is that one reads a lot of books published elsewhere in the world, and so the settings are unfamiliar, but this book comes far closer to home, in time, in place, and even in people.
A man opens a box left by his father, George Jameson, who had died when he was 8 years old, and tries to reconstruct his father's life and his own family history. In this the book reminds me of A recessional for Grace by Margurite Poland. One of the similarities is that the protagonist in that book was researching the life of a Xhosa linguist, making a study of the terms for different kinds of cattle, and in The Native Commissioner the protagonist is fluent in Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans as well as English, his native language, so it is difficult to avoid comparisons.
The father was a civil servant, and, like many civil servants, was subject to numerous transfers in the course of his career, and most of those places I was familiar with, having passed through them many times. George Jameson was born to a white farming family in Babanango, and when I lived in Melmoth 35 years ago I regularly visited a farming family there. Jameson was stationed at Tsumeb in Namibia, and at Libode in Transkei, which I passed through on the way to visit my mother when she worked at St Barnabas Hospital, Ntlaza. So it was easy to picture the places and the settings.
Also, I could not help picturing the protagonist as being like Buller Fenwick, a retired Native Commissioner I knew in Melmoth. When I knew him he was doing odd jobs for various people, and would come to us for photocopies, because back in 1979 we had the only photocopier in Melmoth. He was an interesting bloke, and confirmed in real life one of the things that is central to the story. Before the Nats came to power in 1948, his job as a Magistrate and Native Commissioner was to administer justice -- white man's justice to people of a different culture, to be sure, but justice nonetheless. After the Nats came to power the nature of the job changed; it was no longer to administer justice, but to administer government policy. And that is the central dilemma faced by the protagonist in this book, which eventually drives him to a nervous breakdown.
The book is therefore, at one level, true to life. It can give an authentic picture of what life was like for some people in South Africa in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But was only like that for a relativly small proportion of people -- white civil servants who had doubts about the morality of the National Party policy juggernaut, where the alternatives, if you did not jump on the bandwagon, were to get out of the way or get crushed. Jameson tried, but failed, to get out of the way, and got crushed.
The method of telling the story, reconstucting a life from documents, has its disadvantages, however. I know from my own interest in family history how difficult it is with real people -- it is all so fragmentary, and there are so many loose ends. Using such a technique in a work of fiction is unnecessarily limiting, though I think Magurite Poland handled it better than Shaun Jameson does. In this case it leaves too much of the story untold.
For example, the narrative tells us that "On the 5th of September he sends a reply to the Johannesburg head office regarding its instruction to repatriate one Buthi Mngomeni to his homeland. Unfortunately, writes my father curtly, your order cannot be acted on as neither we nor he know where his homeland is."
In real life biography, coming across such correspondence in the archives is pure gold. It speaks volumes to the researcher. It portrays exactly the impersonal bureacratic cruelty of the apartheid system, treating human beings who have names, like Buthi Mngomeni, as non-persons, as mere "human resources" (why is that obscene term still in such common use?) And it tells you of a civil servant who is gatvol of the whole system, who has had it up to here.
But the average reader of a novel is not a historical researcher, easily able to tease out the significance of such documents. Many people, especially white people, lived through that period with very little clue about what was going on there, and so its significance would escape them. Those who were born after 1980, or those who have never been in South Africa, unless exceptionally well-read, would miss it altogether.
The fiction writer has the opportunity to tell the story fully, to show Buthi Mngomeni as a real person with a life, with a family. It could be expanded to a paragraph, a page, a whole chapter even. But the "documentary research" format does not allow it.
So while one can say that the story is true to life, it is what apartheid was really like for some people, it gives only a tiny fragment of the picture. There is also much more to the story than this.
This is J.K. Rowling's adult book. Well, her first adult book, maybe she'll write more.
It's about small-town politics.
Somehow one doesn't expect smallThis is J.K. Rowling's adult book. Well, her first adult book, maybe she'll write more.
It's about small-town politics.
Somehow one doesn't expect small-town politics to be gripping stuff, but it is, and the more you get into it, the more gripping it gets, as the community and families are gripped by political and personal rivalries and you keep reading to see what happens next. ...more
In May 1844 Frank Bassingthwaighte, a blacksmith turned sailor, was at St Helena Island when Thomas Lawton a trader from Walvis Bay came aboard his shIn May 1844 Frank Bassingthwaighte, a blacksmith turned sailor, was at St Helena Island when Thomas Lawton a trader from Walvis Bay came aboard his ship, and recruited him to work for him and and his partners, so he transferred to the Susan and went back to Walvis Bay with Lawton, whose partners, Ben Dixon and James Morris (erroneously referred to as Thomas Morris in the book), had a contract to supply meat to the British garrison on St Helena.
This book is the story of Frank Bassingthwaightte and his eldest son James, several of whose descendants still live in Namibia today.
Frank Bassingthwaighte married the boss's daughter -- Rebecca Dixon -- which did little to advance his career, since they lost the contract a few years later, and the partnership broke up. The Dixon family moved to the Northern Cape, where they had a farm, and the Bassingthwaightes also lived there for part of the time, and young James stayed with his grandparents until he was 9 years old, and then went back to Namibia to join his parents, and found himself kept busy working as a herdboy, wagon driver and various other jobs.
The Bassignthwaightes were sometimkes farmers, sometimes traders, and sometimes hunters, but their hard work did not make them rich, and they had long thirsty treks through the semi-desert country of the Northern Cape and Namibia with little to show for it except dead oxen and horses that had died of thirst.
Towards the end of his life Frank was infirm and could not do much, but he still travelled around with his son, apparently loving the wandering nomadic life.
James Bassingthwaighte married Philipina Von Schlicht -- according to her father she was marrying beneath her -- and they had several children. She died young, and James brought up his family as a single parent. The Germans took over Namibia, and the Bassingthwaightes lost the family farm at Neuheusis because they lived in such remote areas that they did not hear of the regulation requiring them to register it until it was too late.
In the First World War the South Africans invaded and took over from the Germans, and threatened to intern James Bassingthwaighte as an enemy alien. They asked his nationality and he replied, "I am the son of an Englishman, born in this country. During my life I have lived under the rule of Hottentots, Hereros and Germans. I don't know what I am, but perhaps you bcan tell me."
It's an interesting story of hard lives, well told.
Jeffery, Susan and John Greyling go to stay with their grandparents, who are being forced to sell the family home, which has been in the family for geJeffery, Susan and John Greyling go to stay with their grandparents, who are being forced to sell the family home, which has been in the family for generations, because they can no longer afford to maintain it. The children discover a hidden map showing the whereabouts of the family treasure, hidden for many years, and if they can find the treasure, their grandparents will not have to sell the house. But there is already a potential buyer, Mr Potts, who is also after the treasure, and is determined to get the map from the children.
I can't remember when or where I first read the book, but I must have been about 9 or 10 years old, and it was a copy that belonged to someone elee, so I wasn't able to re-read it. Jeffery the eldest of the children, made a big impression on me -- so much so that when I wrote a children's novel of my own many years later (Of wheels and witches), I borrowed his name, and something of what I had imagined his character to be.
On rereading it as an adult, more than sixty years later, I am struck by different things. I can see why there was a period when librarians didn't like Enid Blyton. There are some things about her style that I found annoying as an adult, though as a child I didn't notice them. There is an over use of exclamation marks. The children are always telling each other how clever they are and exclaiming about the obvious. There is the usual Enid Blyton food porn. This gives the impression that Enid Blyton is writing down to children, and I was struck by the contrast with, say, the Harry Potter books, where the style is so much better.
But after the first couple of chapters either the style improves, or else one gets caught up in the story so that the defects are less noticiable. There are a few reminders of how society has changed since the book was first written, assumptions about gender roles, for example. The children discover an abandoned summer house, and when they decide to clean it up, "Susan took charge of the cleaning, because she was the girl." But at least her brothers helped her.
It's a simple story with a simple plot, but still an enjoyable read after all these years.
A Polish couple is separated at the beginning of the Second World War, and reunited in Britain after the war is over. In the six years that they haveA Polish couple is separated at the beginning of the Second World War, and reunited in Britain after the war is over. In the six years that they have been apart their different experiences have made them different people. Then there is the child Aurek, who has only known the life of a fugitive, hiding in the forest. He has to adapt to living in a suburban house in a society where the language, is strange.
The story alternates between the present and the past, starting with their reunion, and going back to their former life, leading up to the present.
I picked this book up on a remainder sale, after reading the blurb I thought it looked interesting for the same reason that I found the The long road home the aftermath of the Second World War interesting. I'm interested in transitions, in between times, changes from war to peace, migrants, refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers. How do such people make a transition from one life to another?
And so I bought it and brought it home to read it, and was surprosed at how good it was. When I read historical novels, I tend to look out for anachronisms, well, not actually to look for them, but when I spot them I find them jarring, and so I tend to be reading in nervous expectation. In this book I didn't spot any, or at least none that were jarring. It seemed remarkably authentic and true to life -- not that I've ever been to Poland, so I might not know anyway, but it didn't seem much different from novels by Polish novelists that I've read.
The characters and their reactions are believable, yet not predictable, and this unpredictability is what makes the novel seem so authentic. It is like the unpredictability of real life, when you never know what will happen next or how people will respond to it. ...more
I first read this book when I was at school, some 60 or so years ago. I found it in the school library, and thought it was OK. My main memory of thatI first read this book when I was at school, some 60 or so years ago. I found it in the school library, and thought it was OK. My main memory of that reading was that it was there that I first learnt about the Augrabies Falls on the Orange River. I had never heard of the Augrabies Falls before, which, according to the book, were higher and had a greater volume of water than the Victoria Falls and the Niagara Falls, which weveryone in the school knew about. But no one else at the school had heard of the Aughrabies Falls either.
I thought that one day I would like to visit the Aughrabies Falls, and about 25 years ago I did. They were impressive. I still haven't visited the Victoria Falls or the Niagara Falls, and probably never will, but with the possibility that we may pay a second visit to the Aughrabies Falls later this year, I took this book out of the City of Tshwane municipal library and read it again.
The second reading was very different from the first. The first reader was a schoolboy who had never been to any of the places described, and could only imagine what they were like. I had to picture it like the land of Mordor in a work of fiction (which I only read abouot 10 years later, in 1966).
On the second reading I had visited several of the places described in the book, and so the second reading was a reminder of places I have known. The second reading was also after we had embarked on the study of family history, and Lawrence G. Green mentions relatives of mine or my wife's in this and several others of his books. His anecdotes are not always accurate, but they are nevertheless informative and entertaining.
How does one characterise Lawrence G. Green's books? He is a journalist, travel writer, amateur historian, gossip and raconteur. He has a journalist's nose for the news, and so in his travels he makes notes of stories, not just current news, but old news, news of years ago, stories that are, as he puts it in the title of one of his books, Almost forgotten never told.
I come to this book now with a more critical eye. Not only have I researched the family history (and so know that some of the details of his stories about our relatives are inaccurate), but I've also studied general history and historiography, and so am on my guard for evidence of racism or colonialist propaganda, which are evident in many books written by white people about history and travel in southern Africa in the first half o0f the 20th century. There is some, but less than I expected. In describing the wars of the German colonial rulers of Namibia with the Bondelswarts tribe, he notes several instances of the Bondelswarts chivalrous behaviour, trying to avoid civilian casualties, leaving a note of apology on the body of a military medical officer they had shot by mistake, as they had not noticed his medical badgges until it was too late, and saying they would not shoot unarmed doctors. The Germans, representatives of Western "civilization", on the other hand, were carrying out wars of extermination in that period (1904-1908).
Green begins his story a bit away from the river, at Union's End, the remote boundary marker where the borders of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa meet, now part of the Transfrontier Kalahari Park. I haven't been to Union's End, but I have travelled through the Kalahari Gemsbook National Park from Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata, up the dry and dusty valley of the Auob River, on my first visit to Namibia in 1969.
I did not know, having forgotten from the first reading, that there was a settlement of Basters there, different from those of Rehoboth, who once had a shortlived Republic of Mier.
Of course there is the description of the Aughrabies Falls, though when Green visited in the 1930s he had to swim streams to get to where he could see the falls, whereas when we went there in 1991 there were bridges.
He describes the history of Onseepkans, where we crossed into Namibia in 1991, a year after it became independent, when the border officials were still housed in prefabs and tents. I took the name to indicate that some travellers who had crossed the hot and dry plains of Bushmanland, south of the river (which Green also describes) had taken the opportunity to wash their hair in the river, and washed the soap out too. But apparently the name is derived from a Hottentot word, meaning the drinking place for cattle.
Green tells some of the history of the mission station at Pella, which we have not visited, but may visit later this year, where Roman Catholic missionaries, with no knowledge of building at all, constructed a large cathedral.
So the second read was much more interesting than the first, partly because I have been to some of the places mention in the book, and we hope to see some of those he mentions that we have never seen before.
So I recommend this book to anyone who has travelled in the Northern Cape or southern Namibia, or who is planning to. Others might find it interesting too, as I did when I read it the first time.
A rather strange and quite enjoyable book, which I might have given a higher rating were it not for a few flaws. Some people facing almost certain cerA rather strange and quite enjoyable book, which I might have given a higher rating were it not for a few flaws. Some people facing almost certain certain death, usually in battle, have a mysterious ability to jump forward in time, and in their new time they are welcomed by the Guild, an organisation of time travellers that helps them to fit in to their new environment.
In some ways the book is reminiscent of The time traveler's wife, except that a lot more people are able to travel in time. The story is interesting and the plot is quite complex, but reaches a point where there seem to be too many coincidences. And then one starts expecting even more coincidences, and trying to guess what will happen next. One lesson that the Guild teaches new arrivals is that there is no return, either to the time or place that they came from, but then Nicholas Davenant, an English nobleman who disappeared in 1812, in a battle in the Napoleonic wars, and was translated to the early 21st century in the USA, is asked by the Guild to return to his own time and place, because of problens with another mysterious group called the Ofan.
The book raises all kinds of expectations about what is going to happen, and that there may be some explanation of some of the plot twists, but in the end the story ends rather abruptly, with all kinds of loose ends with no explanations at all.
But Bee Ridgway has promised a sequel, so maybe this is a cliff-hanger technique to get people to buy the next book....more
This is a whodunit with a difference. Well, with several differences. It's about a serial killer, and quite a lot of crime novels are about that.
The mThis is a whodunit with a difference. Well, with several differences. It's about a serial killer, and quite a lot of crime novels are about that.
The most notable difference is that it pays as much attention to the victims as it does to the killers or the cops.
In many crime novels the victims are simply dead bodies, and the police investigating the crime have to identify them to find out who they were, and very often the reader knows little more about them than the police. In this case, however the story deals with them as real people with a history. One effect of this is to make one conscious of the enormity of murder. It is not simply a puzzle to be solved. It brings to an end, unexpectredly and with little warning, the life of a person with hopes and fears and loves and relationships.
Another difference is that it is set in Berlin in 1945, immediately after the end of the Second World War. After so much killing on an industrial scale, it requires a change of mental gears to deal with peacetime crimes. When so many people have died violent deaths in the previous few months, what do one or two more matter? So it is about a society in transition, and seeking to recover mormality.
Another difference, related to the last, is that it gives a picture of life in Berlin, not merely at the time in question, but over the previous 20 years. It shows how ordinary people responded to the rise of the Nazis to power, their behaviour in power, and how they responded to the war. I think that, quite apart from the plot and the characters, which are very good, this aspect of the setting may be the best feature of the book.
How do I know this?
I was 4 years old in 1945, and did not visit Germany until 20 years later. So how can I judge that the picture of life in Nazi Germany is accurate and authentic?
I think I can know by extension. I know that A Dry White Season tells it like it was in apartheid South Africa, even though it is a work of fiction, because I lived through the period. And this book has the same flavour of authenticity. It shows the ambiguities and inconsistencies and contradictions of living in an increasingly authoritarian society, and is worth reading for that alone.
A rather slow-moving book that couldn't seem to make up its mind what genre it was. I read the blurb, and it seemed to be about a family history mysteA rather slow-moving book that couldn't seem to make up its mind what genre it was. I read the blurb, and it seemed to be about a family history mystery, and I enjoy reading such books, but the theme wasn't handled very well. Lucy Jarrett leaves her boyfriend in earthquake-ridden Japan and goes home to the Lake of Dreams in New York to visit her family. She discovers some old papers that suggest that she had some relations she had not known about, and sets out to discover more about them, and they seem to be connected with some stained-glass windows in an abandoned chapel.
So far, so good, except that the story moves painfully slowly, and we are not told much about the family history that he did know, so the startling revelations are less than astartling, and at times in seems to drop into stream-of-consciousness stuff like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, with the same dream told three times over, and thoughts repeated again and again, so that in just about every chapter I wanted to say "Get on with the story, for crying in a bucket." Other authors seem to handle the stream-of-consciousness stuff quite well, but in this book it just gets boring,
Much of the earlier part is told in the form of letters of a mother written to her young daughter, whom she has had to leave in the care of relatives. The letters seem not to have been sent, and in any case, the daughter would have been too young to read them. They were also highly unconvincing. I can't imagine a mother writing to her pre-teen daughter in 1912 or 1913 about viruses and human interfaces.
This edition didn't have a cover illustration on Good Reads. That's OK, because the generic cover expresses what I felt about the book. ...more
I've read lots of British and Swedish whodunits. I've read several whodunits set in the USA and Norway, and a few set in DenA South African whodunit.
I've read lots of British and Swedish whodunits. I've read several whodunits set in the USA and Norway, and a few set in Denmark, Greece and Turkey. But it doesn't seem to be a popular genre with South African writers. So I enjoyed this one, and not just because it was set in South Africa, but because it was a pretty good specimen of the genre.
The protagonist, Detective Sergeant (or is it Constable? she seems to get promoted without explanation in the first couple of chapters) Persy Jonas, seems like a fairly ordinary person -- not a poet, not an aristocrat, not alcoholic or going through a traumatic divorce, not a rogue cop perpetually on the verge of being fired for drunkenness, but brought back in the nick of time because no one else is such a brilliant detective. Persy (short for Persephone) Jonas is an ordinary person and an ordinary cop. It makes it more real, somehow.
Of course she has her problems; which cop, real or fictional, doesn't? She has problems at home -- domestic violence3 in the family. She has problems coming to terms with things in her past. It's just kind of refreshing that those problems don't include booze and/or divorce, or perpetual disciplinary problems with superiors related to insubordination.
And of course there are problems at work. There are problems of racism, sexism and corruption, rivalries and personality clashes. But they don't take over the story.
In addition, in many whodunits one gets the impression that murder is the only crim,e the police ever investigate, so the stories seem somehow unreal. In this book there is a murder investigation, but it is sandwiched in between burglary, theft, and looking for a lost dog, which the police ar also investigating. That makes it feel more convincing as a police procedural, somehow.
There are a few editorial slip-ups -- Persie's rank being one of them -- but they don't detract from the story, so I'll still give it five stars. I think Persie Jonas could become one of my favourite fictional detectives.
It's hard to know if I can say more than that without giving away the plot, if there is a plot. Or giving away what happens toThis is a strange book.
It's hard to know if I can say more than that without giving away the plot, if there is a plot. Or giving away what happens to the characters and what they do.
It is also a bit confusing because sometimes one does not know which character is speaking until one is halfway down the page, and then I have to go back to the top of the page and read it again with the other character in mind. But that's OK, because even the protagonist doesn't really know.
And also you sometimes don't know whether the events are taking place in the present or in the past. But that's OK too, because most of the time the protagonist doesn't seem to know that either.
Marnie and Jess Irving are twenty-something sisters whose father has disappeared. And in the neighbourhood where they live the cats are disappearing one by one. Marnie has a friend Shiuli and two other friends Dylan and Ruth. Sometimes they do things together but most times they dont.
It is about the ambiguities of friendship and love, about memory, love and revenge and the darkness that is within us.
I don't think I can say more than that without giving away the plot. If there is a plot. ...more
Lawrence G. Green's books follow a similar pattern, and there is a certain amount of repetition. He tells the same story in more than one book, sometiLawrence G. Green's books follow a similar pattern, and there is a certain amount of repetition. He tells the same story in more than one book, sometimes with more or less detail.
This one deals with the west coast of southern Africa, from the Cape to the Kunene, with anecdotes of out of the way places, and characters who played a minot role in history. As a journalist he collected notes on all sorts of topics, and every now and then he would work them up to a story with a connecting theme, and in this one the connecting theme is the places on the "Diamond Road" and the Skeleton Coast.
As I've already noted about his Thunder on the Blaauwberg not all of his tales are accurate. He is a raconteur, not a historian.
We have several of his books on our shelves, and the story of how this one came to be on our shelves is almost like one of his stories. It has been in our bookshelf ever since I can remember, and has the inscription, "To Frank Hayes, the most genuine of pals, from Tromp van Diggelen."
Frank Hayes was my father, and Tromp van Diggelen was my godfather, and it is just the kind of book he would give as a gift to a friend, because he loves such stories, and lived them himself. Like Lawrence George Green Tromp van Diggelen loved to go on journeys to out-of-the-way places, drawn by tales of lost cities and buried treasure. In his youth he was a wrestler, and later he was a physical fitness instructor, and my father, originally one of his pupils, became one of his friends.
I've been pulling the books off the shelves and rereading them for reasons related to family history. A researcher is trying to find out more about the life of Abraham Morris (1866-1922) the guerrilla fighter against the Germans in Namibia in 1906, and leader of the Bondelswarts Rebellion in 1922, in which he was killed.
Abraham Morris's mother was Annie Schyer of the Bondelswarts, and the story is that his father was a white trader named Morris. My wife Val's ancestry is part of the Morris family, who were traders in Namibia, so there is a possibility that Abraham Morris was related to us -- but how? There were two James Morrises, cousins, each with a brother William, who could possibly have been his father. So we search books like this looking for tiny clues that could place one or other of the Morrises in the right place at the right time to be Abraham's father.
This book mentions Abraham Morris only briefly, Thunder in the Blaaurberg gives more detail. But it has plenty of fascinting stories about various places and events.
One of the places of particular interest was the Leliefontein Methodist Mission Station, near Garies in the Northern Cape. It was a place where traders between Namibia and the Cape often called in the 19th century, and many people passed through there.
Other stories that interested me were those of the 1934 floods in Namibia, when the highest rainfall was recorded. It was the highest recorded up till then, and has never been exceeded since. When I lived in Windhoek 40 years ago there were still people around who remembered the floods of 40 years before, and there were signs in improbable places showing the levels that water in the rivers had reached then. Green tells several stories of the floods from people who actually experienced them. He also tells of odd characters and eccentrics, like the one who built a castle in the desert, and those who tried to climb lonely mountains, and, rather more sadly, those who kill baby seals for their fur.
We first heard of this book from a relative who told us that it documented the royal descent of the Green family (my wife Val is a member of this famiWe first heard of this book from a relative who told us that it documented the royal descent of the Green family (my wife Val is a member of this family), and indeed chapter 3, with the title "Blood Royal", is all about Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, and his lover Julie de St Laurent, whom he had to give up when he needed to make a suitable marriage tio produce an heir to the throne.
So far, so good. But the story is that the prince and Julie had a son, William Goodall Gteen, who was the ancestor of the Green family in South Africa. Unfortunately that is not so. The full story is told by Mollie Gillen in her book The Prince and his Lady. William Goodall Green was born in 1790 in Quebec, a year before Edward and Julie had ever set foot in Canada; his father was William Goodall, a London businessman, and his mother was Eliza Green, the daughter of a Quebec butcher. Green tells some fascinating stories, but at the most significant points this one is untrue. I've covered this in more detail here: Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.
Another chapter, about a British spy in German South West Africa, mentions another mystery of our family history. The spy was Alexander Patterson Scotland, manager of a store on the border between the Cape Colony and German South West Africa. The Namas and Hereros rebelled against the Germans, and one of the leaders of the rebels was Abraham Morris, who was known to Scotland, and Lawrence G. Green tells something of his story in in chapter 6, "Hauptmann Schottland". Abraham Morris was also related though we are not sure how yet, and that is one of the problems we are working on in our current family history research.
I've read several of Lawrence G. Green's books, and most of them deal with stories of interesting characters or places, many of whom featured in news stories of their day, or sometimes rumours -- stories of outlaws like Scotty Smith, guerrilla fighters like Abraham Morris, spies like Alexander Scotland and many more. This one includes a diamond prospector, Solomon Rabinowitz, a visionary theorist of time, John William Dunne, a legenderay escaper and others. But the second half ofr the book was rather disappointing, where Green doesn't focus of people and places, and goes into themes, like tastes, sounds and smells of Africa, where he jumps from one place to another, and the story becomes rather fragmented.
As I said at the beginning, some of Green's stories, like the "Blood Royal" one, have been debunked, and most need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but he is a marvellous raconteur, and they are enjoyable reads, even if the history is sometimes doubtful.
Since this is a collection of novels, I'll comment on each one separately as I read it, on my Khanya blog, and when I've done with all of them may addSince this is a collection of novels, I'll comment on each one separately as I read it, on my Khanya blog, and when I've done with all of them may add some comments on the collected works here. I begin with Burmese Days, because that was the first one in the collection that I hadn't read.
The next one in the series is A clergyman's daughter, to which I give only three stars. Not that it's a bad book, but it has some faults that I didn't see in Burmese Days.
Coming up for Air is a strange book. I was determined not to like it, and yet I felt compelled to finish it, though couldn't stand to read much more than a chapter a day; a page-turner it wasn't. It's about a fat middle-aged salesman living a dull middle-class life in a dull London suburb, who goes out to get his new set of false teeth. On thje way he sees a poster about King Zog's wedding, and that sets him off reminscing about his childhood in a small town in Oxfordshire. One expects the memories to last for a chapter or two, but they go on and on and on.
This is the second historical murder mystery I've read in as many weeks, the previous one being Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This one, however, is farThis is the second historical murder mystery I've read in as many weeks, the previous one being Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This one, however, is far more complex.
Dissolution is set in the sixteenth century and stays there, and though there are lots of deaths, they all take place in the 1530s. The Unburied is set in the nineteenth century, in the fictitious English cathedral city of Thurchester, but as the primary narrator, Dr Edward Courtine, is a historian, it harks back to several mysterious, or at least historically-disputed deaths in the past, in several different periods.
I enjoyed the book a lot, but perhaps that is because history is a topic that interests me a great deal. An interest in history, however, is not enough to make one enjoy historical novels, and in fact can impair enjoyment of them. A historian reading historical novels is always on the lookout for anachronisms (and yes, there are some in this book -- the use of the word "teenager", is but one example). But because the protagoinist is a historian, as are some of the other characters, perhaps one could call this a historigraphical novel, and that would make it of more interest to historians.
As I said, it is complex, and you have to keep your wits about you when reading it, to follow the motives not only of the characters, to see who had a motive for murdering whom, but also the motives of the historians who left their written accounts of the events, and the motives of the current characters in the story who interpret the documents and other evidence -- part of the evidence is in the fabric of Thurchester Cathedral itself.
The bulk of the book is taken up with Dr Courtine's visit to Thurchester, which lasts five days. He visits an old friend, from whom he has been estranged, and also visits the cathedral library in search of a manuscript that he believe's may throw light on the death of a ninth-century bishop, which may in turn illuminate the character of King Alfred. During his visit there is another murder, in which Dr Courtine is a witness, and uses his skills as a historian to try to work out what actually happened, but to some extent he is blinded by class prejudice, and so misses some important clues. So we have to read his account with a critical historian's eye, looking for unjustified assumptions and other historical errors.
It's a good and challenging read, especially if you like history.