Whitethorn by Bryce Courtenay

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Whitethorn by Bryce Courtenay

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Highly evocative and with a wonderful ear for dialogue, Whitethorn will appeal to all fans of the bildungsroman and sagas generally. However, the novel bears too much similarity to its predecessor, The Power Of One, and is perhaps over-long.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 704 Date: November 2006
Publisher: Michael Joseph Ltd
ISBN: 0718150422

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Tom Fitzsaxby is a young orphan at a boys farm in rural South Africa. It is 1939, and South Africa has weighed in on the side of the Allies against Nazi Germany. For its Afrikaaner community, this is not a popular move. It brings to the fore the old wounds of the Boer War and its murder-by-concentration-camp. High in the mountains hatred for the British runs high, and Tom, as the only child at the Boys Farm with an English name, becomes a target for bullying and abuse - not only by the other boys, but also by the staff. His miserable existence is made bearable by his only friend Mattress, a Zulu farm boy and his dog, a rescued fox terrier named Tinker. And even these two are under threat...

Whitethorn is a pretty straightforward bildungsroman. It follows Tom Fitzsaxby from the nightmare years at the Boys Farm, through school and university right up until he is thirty years old and finally able to put the ghosts of his past to rest.

It's very well-written. Courtenay has the most wonderful ear for dialogue and very strong, ironic sense of humour. It takes great skill to write about the kind of unrelenting, vicious abuse suffered by Tom in such a way as to make the reader laugh, without ever diminishing the pain and the loneliness. And laugh I did. Tom's major concern is to avoid getting into "the deep shit", but try as he might, "the deep shit" looms large every single day and his childish attempts to avoid it lead to some hilarious adventures. The staff at the Boys Farm are bullies to a man, and their self-important posturings are also exceedingly funny but at the same time shocking and utterly horrific. Tom is an absolutely delightful child and Courtenay creates an immediate and very strong emotional attraction to him. It's all very Dickensian.

However, Whitethorn does lose its way a little after the first third of the book. Once Tom leaves the Boys Farm behind, once he begins to gain a little knowledge and experience, the intimate atmosphere fades and the narrative (inevitably first-person) feels slightly less connected. Gone are the slightly confused but highly evocative timelines of a six year old child, replaced by a fairly straightforward relation of events. Of course Tom loses naivety over time, and the book is correct to reflect this, but it does make its pull less strong. I felt that it was only my involvement with the first part of Whitethorn that saw me through to its end. And the very end, unfortunately, is a little trite, a common pitfall in this kind of book.

Having said that, I am not generally a fan of the epic, sweeping novel and there is nothing that I disliked in Whitethorn that I wouldn't also dislike in other books of its kind. It has a lot going for it. The writing is great. The characters are well-drawn and consistent. There is a constant counterplay of humour and pathos and Courtenay displays a deep and sympathetic understanding of human nature, even at its worst. And Tom Fitzsaxby is a hero worthy of any novel. I'll remember him for a long time.

I am giving Whitethorn four Bookbag stars, but a personal three. Its faults are largely genre-related, and its strengths are most definitely Courtenay's own. For me, the momentum decreased steadily after the first third of the book and it really is little more than a simple reprise of Courtenay's previous hit, The Power of One. However, fans of the genre won't mind this. Whitethorn is a classy act, certainly well ahead of its competition.

Thanks to the publisher, Michael Joseph, for sending the book.

Those who enjoy a classy bildungsroman would also enjoy The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafon.

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Buy Whitethorn by Bryce Courtenay at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Whitethorn by Bryce Courtenay at Amazon.com.


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mbailey said:

I enjoyed Whitethorn. It was hilarious and sad all at the same time. as a south african you can see where it is all coming from. i would recommend it to all but as you say it does go back to the other books that he has written. i finished it rather quickly and it is a pity when you are enjoying a good book like that. our libraries do not have any of the latest books on the shelves as they are so cash strapped so it is difficult to find something of the latest to read. my friend shares her books with me.

Jill replied:

Yes, I loved the first parts of the book. And it must be awful to struggle for reading matter! Sympathies.