Book review: An Honourable Man by Gillian Slovo

An Honourable Man
by Gillian Slovo
Virago, 2012

Gillian Slovo’s latest novel is set in 1885, when the British Army sent its first Camel Corps to attempt to rescue General Charles Gordon from Khartoum. Gordon’s story is very well known, so the author’s challenge is to create a suspenseful and engaging story around the historical record.

This she does by focusing on John Clarke, a young London doctor who volunteers to serve as an army surgeon for the campaign. John’s wife, Mary, sees him off at the station, exacting a promise from John that he will not go to the front, but stay in the “rear hospital”. There are underlying tensions in this departure scene. As the subsequent days, weeks and months go past, we read of John’s and Mary’s experiences from each one’s point of view, and the darkness under the veneer of a respectable marriage becomes clearer. Interspersed with these accounts are passages about Gordon, trapped in Khartoum with no food and only questionably loyal Egyptian troops between him and the Mahdi’s hordes. These sections are told from the point of view of Will, a young (purely fictional) boy who Gordon had previously rescued from the dockyard slums.

As time goes by, each of the main characters changes their perspective on life. In John’s and Mary’s cases, this is to some extent a result of the length of time they have to spend apart, but for both of them it is mainly due to the presence of an unlikely friend – an echo of the dynamics between the trapped Gordon and Will.

I enjoyed reading this novel, which is a departure for me. It reminded me of the historical novels I devoured many years ago. This particular book can easily be appreciated by young readers as well as old ones like me, as it is written in a clear, direct style and describes lots of action in the desert. I particularly liked the correspondence in the Pall Mall Gazette between William Sneed, who was urging Gladstone to send a relief party to rescue Gordon, and A. Bartholomew, of the Huddersfield Anti-Slavery Society, whose view was rather different. I felt that the characters of John and Mary could have been awarded more depth, but overall this novel is a readable reminder of the contradictions of the British Empire, and the human costs of antiquated beliefs – and indeed, the meaning of the word “honourable” (it is deliberately left unclear as to who is the “honourable man” of the title).

I thank Sarah Ward, who very kindly gave me this book.

Other reviews of An Honourable Man: The Guardian, The Independent, and The Telegraph.

The Witness: interview with the author about this book.

BBC iPlayer: Open Book – Mariella Frostup talks to Gillian Slovo about General Gordon and Empire.

Gillian Slovo’s Wikipedia entry, for those who would like to know more about this fascinating and multi-talented author.

25 thoughts on “Book review: An Honourable Man by Gillian Slovo

  1. Aha – I was waiting for the crime element – but then realised that there wasn’t going to be one! Sounds like a very interesting book – I like the sort that approach a story from two viewpoints. I don’t think I’d ever have picked up this book because of the (to me) uninspiring cover, but this review would certainly tempt me. Thanks, Maxine.

    • She did write a crime series a good while ago, which I haven’t read, but since then has written literary fiction which seems to be very well regarded. Might be worth checking her bibliography (eg at Wikipedia) in deciding which to read, as they seem to be quite varied.

  2. It really sounds very attractive to me Maxine. I really love the setting which brings to me memories of books and films from my childhood.

    • I agree, Jose Ignacio, this novel does remind me of some of the books I read when young, & films I saw – including the Charlton Heston version of Khartoum which presumably is not entirely accurate, but the final scenes are very much echoed in this book.

  3. Good review. It’s not my particular genre but I enjoyed reading it. I know that Gillian Slovo wrote a novel Red Dust about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which followed the fall of apartheid. It doubtlessly would have had to elaborate on a great deal of horrific brutality, so I skipped it.
    Her mother, Ruth First, was murdered in 1982 via letter bomb in Mozambique, sent by the apartheid regime, and I think that was covered in Red Dust.
    An interesting movie was made about Ruth First, based on a book by Shawn Slovo, Gillian Slovo’s sister. Barbara Hershey starred. What a trauma for them.

    • Yes, I saw that movie years ago, it was very good. I’ve read quite a bit by authors on the Apartheid regime, in particular Steve Biko’s book was very good, and the work of Albie Sachs (the play The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs is excellent). Helen and Janet Suzman are also admirable figures in this regard.

  4. I love stories from that era like The Four Feathers by AEW Mason, and both film versions 1939 and 2002. When I first looked at the review I did not make the connection with her father Joe Slovo, and mother Ruth First. Thanks Maxine for reminding me of their story.

    • Oh yes, I enjoyed that tremendously when younger, Norman. I remember movies like Zulu, and also adoring books by H Rider Haggard, though I much preferred his ones about She/Allan Quartermain than his others. I read all of Neville Shute, and some of his books set in Australia have a sense of this kind of thing, too. (others are more introspective and tragic).

  5. Maxine – Oh, this sounds like a fascinating read, and as you know, I do enjoy historical fiction. And what an effective way to explore the decisions made at that time, their human costs (I like the way you put that) and personal evolution, too. It sounds as though the pace and action of the story keep the reader’s interest too. Thanks for the excellent review.

    • Thank you, too, Margot, for your kind comment. I was expecting this book to be a more challenging read than it was, but the pages flew by.

  6. I love historical fiction so thank you for this review. I need to read some of the ones I have in my TBR. Have you read Susanna Gregory? I still have Ariana Franklin’s last book to read too.

    • I did read a lot of this type of fiction, years ago, eg Barbara Leonie-Pickard, Jean Plaidy and anything on Richard III. My eldest daughter (who is a historian) enjoys more modern authors such as Alison Weir (who writes fiction and non-fiction), Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Chadwick and others whose names escape me temporarily. I confess I don’t read much historical fiction nowadays, but if I want to, we have shelves of it! (including the first Ariana Franklin which I haven’t read but my husband has and said he found it quite good, but he prefers historical non-fiction in general).

      • I’ve read Chadwick and Gregory and find them both very good. The Other Boleyn Girl was very suspenseful even if you already knew what would happen at the end.

      • That comment applies well to this book, Keishon, as we all know what happened to Gordon but she manages to keep up – not exactly the suspense as it isn’t that sort of book – but the interest.

  7. Hi Maxine – glad you enjoyed the book. I’ve read most of Gillian Slovo’s previous books and I absolutely loved ‘The Ice Road’.
    This is on my shelf waiting to read. I know absolutely nothing about the period. We did one hour at school on Gordon of Khartoum and I had absolutely no idea what or whom the teacher was talking about.
    Slovo is normally very good about depicting the facets of human suffering based probably on some of her recollections of life in South Africa. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    • You might enjoy the film, then, Sarah. Not only did Charlton Heston play General Gordon (!) but Laurence Olivier is in full heavy make-up as the Mahdi. You couldn’t do the latter today but America probably still populates the celluloid world with its own countrypeople as heroes of everything.

  8. I agree with the observation about the U.S. movie industry using U.S. actors as heroes of everything. There are lots of scandals around this within the States, too, with white actors being given parts for Black, Latino, Asian and Native characters. And that it still goes on globally is no surprise to me.

    • Yes, there was a big row when an English actor was given the part of Ghandi in the movie – Ben Kingsley (now a “sir”). Khartoum, though, is an old film- may have been made in the 1950s or 60s. I think the film and theatre industry is a bit better these days in assigning roles more appropriately to the many perfectly capable actors dying to play them, instead of always going for the “slap on the make up” approach.

  9. Regarding the FF discussion of Elizabeth Hand’s books, I read the first one Generation Loss and liked it. It was unusual and not your usual crime novel. The main character is very much a flawed, troubled New Yorker with a lot of baggage. However, I was riveted and liked it. Here’s a description by Hand of her main character, Cass Neary, “your prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily tattooed American female photographer.” However, she is likeable, but for anyone who needs protagonists to be wholly well-put together and mentally healthy, purposeful, determined and organized, she is not that.

  10. Thanks for posting my comment on FF. I wonder if the mystery reading bloggers would like Hand’s books. I liked the first one because it was so unusual and the character is a one-of-a-kind personality, who brings her maladjusted self into the crime solving sphere. Would like to know how other readers view her. Two friends liked Generation Loss. I will give the second book a chance as I do like the unusual protagonist now and then.

  11. Pingback: March reading report | Petrona

  12. Pingback: An Honourable Man by Gillian Slovo | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  13. I’ve just finished this book Maxine and I have to say I was a bit disappointed with it. Slovo can be a very powerful writer when she wants to be and found this book to be so-so and therefore a disappointment. I didn’t like the character of Mary at all although the whole laudanum story was quite interesting. The Khartoum bit was better and I hadn’t realised how mad General Gordon was perceived to be.

    • I agree, Sarah. I am sure this author has written better books. Mary is the character who has to carry the novel but I didn’t find her interesting or sympathetic I am afraid. The husband was more interesting but underdeveloped. Yes, Gordon is/was perceived as mad – this madness/self-perceived hero is made pretty clear in the old Charlton Heston movie.

Comments are closed.