This book is set in post-independent Zimbabwe within the setting of a predominately ‘white’ boarding school. Readers should be aware that it is not suitable for younger readers; it is certainly harrowing in places.
The novel depicts the conflict still present in a country supposedly at peace, through the eyes of a young boy from England, Robert Jacklin. His father is very keen for him to make friends with the only black boy in his year, Nelson, a character who could be seen to be a little undeveloped as a one-dimensional saint. However, despite developing an initial friendship with Nelson, who becomes a national-level runner, Robert instead begins to befriend the racist class bully, Ivan, with dire consequences. Ivan’s power over others is demonstrated through the changes seen in the behaviour in Robert, who starts to become almost as resentful as Ivan about the reduction of white power under Mugabe’s rule, quickly adopting a completely different worldview, particularly in respect to his attitudes towards black people in the immediate environment around him.
The book can seem a little too simplistic in places – I was not entirely convinced that Robert would be so easily swayed by such a strongly racist character; however, perhaps I have held too naïve a view about the deep seated racial tensions that exist, and the shape of the consequences of unchallenged belief-systems. Certainly, Ivan’s actions are unprecedented, and Wallace does not shy at including excessive profanity and violence in demonstrating the devastating impact of such an ideology. The dramatic and violent nature of the plot certainly kept me compelled, and impressed upon me the extent of the resentment that can arise between racial groups, and the possible impact of this upon the behaviour of children.