Allen & Unwin
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Tom is a young boy who lives with his family (father, mother, older brother) in a quiet lane in on the edge of town. His best friend is Millie who also lives on the lane and together they puzzle through the often mysterious goings on in their street at a time of change and struggle in South Africa.
Tom idolises his father Harry Mac, a big man who works for a newspaper and who is catching the attention of the wrong people with his scathing op ed pieces. One night Tom is somewhere he shouldn’t be and he overhears his father and his neighbour talking and Tom comes to the conclusion that his father is about to become involved in something terrible.
Tom’s world is changing, growing darker and more dangerous day by day as the politics of South Africa become more radiacalised. His brother is ready to leave for his compulsory military service and the whole family is on edge waiting to see where he will be assigned. The black car that visits the lane at night is a constant source of mystery to Tom and Millie, as is what really happened in the house on the corner. It seems that Tom is close to the truth but the consequences will be like nothing he could’ve ever imagined.
I knew this book would be just my thing the second I picked it up. Africa is one of my favourite settings for a novel and this one chooses an interesting and tumultuous time in South Africa’s political history, around the early 1960s. It’s an ugly history, in many different ways and Eldridge chooses to portray it through the eyes of a child who is perhaps just coming to terms with some of what he is beginning to see and hear. He knows enough to be scared of many things but at the same time, he’s still relatively young and his days are spent curiously asking questions. When he cannot ask his father, he asks his neighbour, Millie’s father Sol, a Jewish man who shares stories of the past with Tom and Millie.
The relationship Tom has with his father is what drives the novel. Harry Mac is a big man, a presence. Former military he now works for a newspaper, one of the ones seemingly left that doesn’t mind criticising the political party in charge and defying any attempts at censorship. Harry Mac’s op ed and front page pieces are the most critical of all, which means that he’s being watched, his phone lines tapped etc. Tom has a brother known as Little Harry (despite the fact that he’s no longer so little) who is older, a man ready to undertake his compulsory military service and who, once having started that, can suddenly relate to Harry Mac in ways that the younger Tom cannot. The older men sit drinking beer and Tom longs to join in, to be a part of their world. Instead he is on the sidelines, especially as the pressures of his job and the changing political environment force Harry Mac into his long silences and nights spent alone drinking grimly.
But despite the stress that comes with his job and refusing to back down, Harry Mac still finds time to relate to his youngest son when he can, including taking him out for a bush experience. It is there that Tom first learns what rhino smells like, something that he comes to associate with his father when he becomes angry (and perhaps helplessly angry about things that he doesn’t feel he can really change, no matter how hard he tries and bucks against the system). The household seems to revolve around the moods of Harry Mac – when he’s happy, Tom’s mother dances and laughs and the mood is light. When he’s brooding in silence, Tom’s mother is silent as well, the house is somber and darker. Harry Mac’s enormous presence is very dominant in the novel but I don’t meant that at all in a negative way. He’s a generous man who clearly cares about his family but at the same time, is feeling external pressure and frustration.
Tom is a wonderful character, he sees the world in such a unique way – equal parts youth and innocence as well as a growing sense of awareness about the world around him, and even fear that things will continue to become more and more complicated. I’m including this in my Around The World in 12 Books Challenge and part of the criteria for that challenge is that the book showcase life within its setting and timeframe and I think that this book does a fantastic job at that because you get to see what the situation was for so many characters, including ones that actually don’t even appear in the story but are merely mentioned in passing. Not only are we given a window into Tom’s life at home with his family and Harry Mac’s life at work in a political situation that is becoming more and more aggressive but we also get a chance to hear and see how Tom’s brother Little Harry goes in his military service. Apart from that, there’s also a pretty good look into life for some of the displaced Jews who settled in South Africa around the time of WWII as well as some of the black citizens, such as the lady who works as a kind of housekeeper/maid for Harry Mac and his family and what her son is doing as well. There’s a broad showcase of minor characters such as the young man injured in the war across the road, being cared for by his father as well as the physically gifted but perhaps mentally challenged young man who is using his athletic prowess as a way to attempt to avoid his military conscription. All of these weave together to paint the bigger portrait of life in 1960’s South Africa for a wide variety of people, with the story behind the family that formerly lived on the house on the corner of the lane perhaps one of the most heartbreaking and horrifying stories of all. This was a truly stunning and thought-provoking debut.
Book #111 of 2015
Harry Mac is book #3 of My Around the World in 12 Books Challenge. The country visited is South Africa.