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.
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.