Thursday, February 23, 2012

An Honourable Man by Gillian Slovo

It is 1884. General Gordon stands on the roof of his fortress in Khartoum as the city is besieged. At his side is the boy, Will, he rescued from an English dockyard slum - his reluctant last ally.
General Gordon was sent to the Sudan by the British Government to oversee the evacuation of Egyptian soldiers and civilians caught up in the revolt but has vowed to fight to the end despite disapproval towards his actions from England.

Approaching with the Camel Corps is a young doctor who has joined the expedition to rescue Gordon. As the men make agonising progress across the desert, John Clarke struggles to be the hero of his imagining, while thoughts of Mary, the wife he left behind, trouble his conscience. 

Back in London controversy rages over the expedition  fueled by a campaign of support led by the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, W.T.Stead. the 'father' of tabloid journalism. Newspaper clippings of letters to the editor from 1884/5 are used throughout the story , an original touch that adds interest to the historical background.

Meanwhile, Mary , resentful of her husband's desire for adventure and completely at a loss without his presence around which her life has previously revolved, becomes increasingly dependent on laudanum to get her through each day, an addiction that will eventually lead her into London's darkest corners.

The story is told from three perspectives - Will, John and Mary - with each individual providing an opportunity to explore themes from politics and military campaigns to the conditions of Victorian women. The author ties them all together very skillfully by focusing on the human experience -all of the characters are united by finding themselves in an unfamiliar environment in which they feel isolated and alone. As a civilian doctor John struggles to find a place in the army corps yet has to share the suffering caused to the troops by leaders who demand the men ride camels and issue leaking water bags. Young Will starves and despairs as he watches General Gordon losing his mind and Mary's need for laudanum drives her from the home that has become a prison into the slums of London.

Moving between the menacing, fog-filled streets of London to the blazing heat of the African desert Gillian Slovo really captures the atmosphere of her locations with a  writing style that is straightforward and very easy to read . An excellent historical novel and one I enjoyed very much.

Royal Reviews Regency & Victorian Challenge

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