North Facing by Tony Peake: A South African atonement

The theme of adults manipulating children isn’t an unusual one in fiction – Atonement and The Go-Between are obvious examples – but the setting of Tony Peake’s new novel stood out for me. In it a man in his sixties has returned to South Africa where he was at boarding school, remembering the events which came to a climax as the world held its breath in the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis when he was twelve years old.

Paul is working his way towards the small town of Mokimolle. It’s the first time he’s been back to South Africa since he was a schoolboy, teased mercilessly by Afrikaans boys for his English parentage. Paul was a sensitive child, desperate to fit in and determined to join Andre du Toit’s club with its despotic rules. Unexpectedly invited into the inner sanctum, he was tasked with stealing anything that appeared unusual from a teacher’s study. Quickly promoted after his delivery of a comb, Paul found himself asked to write a report on Spier, the teacher determined to make his pupils question their world rather than soaking up received opinion. Paul diligently noted what seemed to be a friendship between Spier and Pheko, the school’s groundsman, horrified to see his report in the hands of Andre’s father the following Sunday. Played out against a backdrop of a febrile, post-Sharpeville South Africa, North Facing explores themes of awakening, culpability and atonement.

Peake vividly summons up 1960s’ white South Africa in the grips of fervent anti-communism, determined to go to any lengths to combat threats to its power. The present-day sections of his novel are narrated in the first person, distancing Paul from his younger self whose third-person narrative he occasionally interrupts. It’s an effective device, drawing you into the 1962 story line while signalling its far-reaching consequences. The depiction of colonial South Africa is neatly done: Paul’s determinedly English mother has brought her country with her complete with chintz-bedecked bungalow and Sunday roasts; the mutual fondness between the children and their parents’ servants contrasts with the racism absorbed by unquestioning young minds. Peake lightly sketches Paul’s sexual awakening –  a sudden, puzzling but fateful response – and his realisation of what he has been instrumental in bringing about is quietly delivered. It’s an engrossing, poignant coming-of-age novel whose revelation of the purpose of Paul’s journey brought me to tears.

19 thoughts on “North Facing by Tony Peake: A South African atonement”

  1. I am exactly of an age with Paul and I remember not only the terror of that week of the Cuban missile crisis but also my horror of apartheid, which continued to develop throughout my teens and later years. I suspect that I would find this a very difficult read, but I shouldn’t let that stop me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      1. It was supposed to be released on Nov 15 but seems to now be vague. There are other options, including e-book, I’m just cautious, several of my UK orders have vanished lately…

  2. This sounds powerful, and a tense read. I was wondering why I’d not heard of the author, and looking him up I see it’s been around 20 years since his last novel. It sounds like this was worth waiting for!

  3. Wonderful review. I’ve studied this time period and these themes in history classes, but that was years ago, and reading something in a history text is often less powerful than vicariously experiencing it through realistic fiction. Lately, I haven’t been inclined to read intense books, but I’ll add this one to my TBR.

    1. Delighted to hear that, and thank you. I think you’re right about vicariously experiencing history through fiction rather than an analytical text. Doesn’t always work, of course, but this seems a good example to me. Given that you’ve studied the period, I’d be interested to know what you think of it.

  4. This sounds like a great novel-with many layers it seems. I personally enjoy books that happen against a backdrop of a historical event that many people will remember, it makes the book more powerful I think.

    1. It was the Cuban missile crisis linked with South Africa in the ’60s that attracted me to the novel, Anne, but it’s also intensely personal and made all the more so by the knowledge of the author’s background.

  5. This sounds so good, but I have to admit that something I find unbearable in books is adult manipulation of children. I don’t think I’ve ever been as mad at a book as I was with Atonement. Is this one that bad?

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