Canvas Under The Sky by Robin Binckes

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Canvas Under The Sky by Robin Binckes

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A novel written by a man who has a passion for and extensive knowledge of Africa: the land, its struggles and history. He has a gift for writing non-fiction that doesn't always transfer to his fiction but when it does, he shines.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: September 2011
Publisher: 30 Degrees South
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1920143633

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Rauch Beukes is a 17 year old Boer lad living with his family on the Eastern Cape frontier in Africa. Sadly for them, the year is 1834: not a good time as the Boers live under the dictates of the British and in fear of indigenous local tribes. This becomes all too real to Rauch when, returning from a trip with his father, he discovers a smouldering heap where his home once stood and a row of graves bearing the remains of his mother and sisters. Wanting a better life, a group of farmers decide to travel towards Africa's southern interior to establish a self-determining Boer homeland and so Rauch, his father and brothers join them feeling they have nothing to lose. The momentum grows and the migration will become known as 'The Great Trek', a tough, dangerous period of South African history, challenging Rauch's strength, courage and a fair bit of his libido.

Some authors are specialists, outstanding in a particular genre or subject but their expertise doesn't always travel when they attempt to extend their repertoire. This doesn't detract from their ability, in fact it's a good way of reinforcing where their talents lie and this is a novel from such an author.

Robin Binckes is an award winning South African history tour guide who's worked as a peace monitor in the townships during their most turbulent times and now runs Friends of Alexandria, a charity helping to care for townships' orphans. To say that he has a close affinity to his homeland is an understatement: this is a man who grew from its soil.

All his experience and research ensured that, when writing about the tribal conflict, battles and skirmishes in Canvas Under The Sky they come alive with colour and authenticity. The short, often staccato, sentences he employs provide a fitting platform on which to communicate the fear, brutality and differing views of ownership as the indigenous fight the more recently established and less battle-wise Boers. Through the modern lens of political correctness it's easy for us to view the Boer's ideas of populating a free land as a violation of tribal rights but that wasn't a viewpoint available to them at the time. The local tribes were indeed fighting for what was already theirs (and there are brief acknowledgements of 21st century sympathies). However this doesn't diminish the horror that the self-reliant Boers faced and this jumps off the page as the battles progress.

For me, though, there are problems with this book elsewhere. Robin Binckes has courageously set out to show those who took part in the Great Trek as real people rather than heroic stereotypes (something that has caused controversy amongst far right South African political groups). But, his novel seems to be populated by people who lack depth of character. The writing style he adopts so successfully and engagingly to recount warfare doesn't work for the remaining story. Instead of being invited into the Voortrekkers' minds and learning more about them as individuals, the novel reads like a log book or court-sanitised witness statement. Rauch and his family end up becoming history-clad vehicles, carrying the reader from one conflict or sexual encounter (and there are quite a few, at least to begin with) to another.

I know very little South African history and so opened Canvas Under The Sky with a thirst to be swept along whilst I absorbed some background to a troubled, beautiful country. My thirst was slaked to some degree by the author's obvious skill and passion when speaking of the tribal battlefields; I just wish that the rest of the novel was as satisfying.

I would like to thank 30 Degrees South for providing Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If you'd like to read more of South Africa, although from a different era, we recommend Scenes From Provincial Life by J M Coetzee.

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