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.