Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Power of One

In Feburary the group enjoyed dicussing Andy's choice of book, The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. That's not the same as saying everyone enjoyed the book, but clashing opinions always enliven the discussion. Andy's the long-suffering 'token male' in the group and so we look forward to his 'man-book' choices as something outside our usual reading.

The Power of One is a big South Africa saga, the tale of one man's progression from a terrified and bullied bed-wetter in boarding school, to a young man of almost Messiah-like qualities. The early death of his only friend -a scraggy chicken called Granpa Chook - at the hands of the bullies seems to be a vengeful driving force. It could seem a bit odd for the death of a chicken to guide your life, but the life and death of Granpa Chook was genuinely powerful and touching, emphasising the loneliness of our hero, Peekay.

Peekay's life then proceeds, from a chance encounter with a boxer on a train, through a chain of events spurred on by his ambition to be Welterweight Champion of the World. He's a remarkable boy - excels at everything he does (well, at music he's merely 'good') - and people begin to be drawn to him. This high-achieving caused some dissension in the group - some found it unnatural and unbelievable, reckoned nobody is so good both physically and intellectually. Others though, found the story inspiring and epic - it was the story of a hero, a future leader perhaps, and of what you can do if you really try, body and soul. Apparently this is the favourite book of Ben Fogle, and of some of our top sportsmen, and you can see why it would be a memorable read for young men.

The book is set in South Africa in the 1940s and 50s, so race plays a big part in the story, and there are many powerful and upsetting scenes. The author doesn't shirk from showing the inbuilt racism of even the generally positive characters. On the other hand there is a lot of humour in the book too. At his best Peekay is a very engaging character. There are some very vivid descriptions - of a mining community for example - and a lot of the background seems to come from the author's own life.

The story is told in a completely linear style, and it's a long book. For some of the group, it dragged. For others, it was completely engaging from start to finish. Andy had gone on to read the 900-page sequel, Tandia. For some of the group this seemed like a form of self-torture, but on the whole Power of One was an enjoyable read leading to a robust and interesting discussion.