Do not be misled by the blurb on the back cover of Bryce Courtenay’s new novel. The Second World War does indeed form a backdrop to the action, but it is a dim and distant one. As the sub-title indicates, this is a novel of Africa, and what makes its protagonist, Tom Fitzsaxby, an outsider – as a South African of English rather than Afrikaans origin – is England’s association with an earlier war. It is the Boer War that defines relationships in this novel and causes many Afrikaners to sympathise with the Nazis. Although the novel begins in 1939, it follows Tom through to the 1960s, to apartheid and resistance to it.
Whitethorn is not an original story – lonely outsider redeemed by his intellect and love of books – but the voice in which Courtenay tells it is unique and beautifully crafted. Tom’s plain language, larded with snatches of Afrikaans and with a strong South African ‘accent’, works as an effective counterpoint to the many horrors he recounts. He makes no moral judgements – he is an orphan, he belongs to The Government and The Government does not expect its possessions to have opinions – he merely tells his life as it happens. His casual, unadorned account of the cruelties he encounters makes them all the more shocking to readers from a more liberal age.
A fine novel, whose message is embedded in gripping storytelling – just as it should be. A word of warning – Whitethorn does require a strong stomach.