I kept worrying throughout reading this book. It’s a marvellous story and I very much enjoyed it. But it is so nerve-wracking. You sit there knowing this is going to be bad. There is not much hope of any happy ever after, or that it can all be explained somehow.
The Costa shortlisted Out of Shadows is set in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, and you can tell Jason Wallace knows what he’s writing about. He too, has been the new English boy in a hard boarding school in post-war Zimbabwe, and he has seen what Mugabe’s early rule was like. Hitler gets a mention, and the parallels are painfully clear. As a portrait of recent modern African history this is unmissable.
Robert is 13 and naïve. His father has got a job at the British Embassy and he adores Mugabe and tells his son what a great country this will be. Although Robert starts off as friends with Nelson, the other new boy, who is black, he soon learns that this is not a school where you befriend blacks. His classmates hate Mugabe, hate blacks, and want all things to go back to what they were.
Ivan is the son of a farmer, and he is a bully. But he’s a bully who wants Robert on his side, against the blacks. The question is whether Robert can stand up to Ivan and his plans, whatever they might be. What’s particularly fascinating is how this dreadful boy is also shown as quite human at times, and we can see how and why he became what he is. But that’s more explanation than excuse.
As it’s a traditional boarding school for boys, there is institutional bullying from older pupils towards younger ones. And then there is the bullying of blacks, be they pupils or staff or ‘villagers’. Or even teachers.
You can tell Ivan and his friends are going straight to hell. The question is what route they will take. We know where they must end up. Who will be dragged along? And can you try and do good, or is decent behaviour doomed?
Set over five years the book makes the reader grow more and more tense. Will they stop at nothing?
This is a fantastic book! But really scary when you have seen the developments in Zimbabwe from our supposedly civilised European corner. Hindsight. If you’d known, would you have acted differently?