by Bryce Courtenay
Before I opened The Power of One I'd never heard of the Boer War and knew little about apartheid. In the beginning of the book I didn't mind being in the dark a little, as it was easy to relate to the main character: a confused five-year-old facing racial persecution he could hardly understand. I was expecting it to become clearer as the novel progressed, but the historical background was never really explained. I had to look some things up to better understand the cultural context, since my grasp of South African history was so sketchy.
The story of Peekay is a coming of age bildungsroman (a new word for me). At five years old, when his mother suffers a nervous breakdown, he is sent to live in a boarding school dominated by Afrikaans children, or Boers. Born English and raised by an Zulu nanny, Peekay identifies with two groups of people that the Boers hate and despise. He undergoes horrific bullying from the other children (this book is not for the squeamish) and becomes focused on learning how to survive. When his mother recovers, Peekay takes a train ride home that changes the course of his life. He meets a railway boxing champion who instills in him an obsessive desire to become a boxer. Not only as a means of self defense, but also apparently as a means to self-esteem, Peekay is determined to become the next welterweight boxing champion of the world.
Through the rest of his maturation, he never abandons this goal, although it puzzles and frustrates many of his family, friends and acquaintances. Continually battling with loneliness and feelings of inner weakness, Peekay finds several mentors who become very influential in his life: a German music professor and naturalist, a schoolteacher, a local librarian and several different boxing coaches, one of whom is a black man he met in prison. Being quite intelligent and easily influential with people, Peekay finds himself being pushed by other people's motives. Some want him to become a polished scholar. His mother wants him to be a pianist. Even his best friend has ulterior motives. No one really understands his driving need to box, and to be the champion.
A largely unexplained detail in the book is the hero's name. At first he is only known by a derogatory name his tormentors assign; then for the rest of the book by the nickname he gives himself. I found it odd that none of the other characters ever address him by his original name, although at several points they question his personal chosen nickname: "Peekay." Perhaps this was intended as an underscore to the novel's message, that strength comes from within the individual, and thus we know the hero only in the manner he identifies and makes himself.
This is a powerful book that deals with issues of racism, oppression and prejudice. It is moving and profound. The characters are vividly depicted through riveting scenes and well-written dialog. The descriptions of boarding school, prison life, naturalist expeditions, literary correspondence and the world of boxing make it rich indeed. This is no light-weight reading! It does get a bit melodramatic at times, and the ending felt rather abrupt and unexpected. However, I just learned there's a sequel to this book called Tandia. In fact, originally it was written as one volume but then deemed too lengthy and split up into two books. The sequel's obscurity makes me concerned it suffers in comparison to the first, but I'm adding it on my list of books to read.
Rating: 5/5 ........ Published 1989, 518 pgs
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