The British author Giles Foden (1967) made himself known to me with his last on the last king of Scotland. A surprising king: Idi Amin, who had a soft spot for bagpipes and kilts. The book centers around a medical doctor who becomes the personal medical doctor of the dictator.

In his second novel Giles Foden (who spent some years in Malawi during his younger years) moves south and reaches South Africa. He takes us to the town of Ladysmith, not to make us listen to music, but to bring us back to the days of the war between the Brit and the Boer in Transvaal under the leadership of Paul Kruger.

Why did he choose this topic and this setting? Well, there is a personal link. Giles discovered letters written by his great grandfather, who fought on the British side at Ladysmith.

The British hold the town of Ladysmith but the Boer are lurking around and looking for ways to conquer the town. The British still fight in the traditional ways and the Boer (under general Joubert) have to look for new ways and form a kind of guerilla army, with new approaches.

In town there is the important Royal Hotel, run by the Irish republican Leo Kiernan and his two daughters Bella and Jane.  Militairy men, journalists, farmers, hairdressers, everyone can be found in the hotel. They mingle and exchange stories, they look for love and the see love walk out of the front door.

Foden is able to mix history and fiction in a good way. One of the journalists that is mentioned in his novel is Winston Churchill, who came to South Africa on board a troop vessel. New troops had to help the enclosed people of Ladysmith, but will the troops under the command of general Buller reach Ladysmith in time? Another famous character is Mahatma Ghandi, who works as a volunteer to help the wounded. Hoe does not want to find.  

The situation in town deteriorates a a high speed. Bombs send by the Boers reach town. It is getting hard to have a proper meal. People dig holes in the riverbank to have a safe haven. Love blossoms, when Bella is looking for it, moving from one man to another.

Foden writes this novel from an English perspective, but he does not neglect the other perspectives, by writing about Boer characters and about Maseku and his son Wellington who had been forced to help the Boer, but who look for their own perspective in surviving in a clash between two foreign powers.

What is the position of the republican Kiernan? His wife has been killed by the English power, way back in Ireland. Which side will he be on?

The book closes with The Monologue of the Dead. We follow the traces of some of the main characters in the book, after the siege of Ladysmith came to an end. 

There are a few parts in the book that were a bit comical and who did not fit very well in the story. But on the whole Foden has written a captivating book and I enjoyed reading it.

Giles Foden – Ladysmith – 1999

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I enjoy reading about Africa. New books. Old books. By African writers. By non-African writers. Novel. History. Travel. Biographies. Autobiographies. Politics. Colonialism. Poetry.

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