War raged in the eastern territories of South Africa for nearly one hundred years. The wars were not continuous, nor were they single faceted in instigator or causal factors, although issues of power or land were at the heart of all of them.
Perhaps three main movements can be identified: it started with the mfecane, the great colonial outpouring of the Zulu nation under its warrior king, Shaka; next came the settlers of European extraction, Boer and English, seeking land and cheap labour, and then the Imperial ambitions of Great Britain, money ambitions, prosecuted for the personal self-glorification of its administrators and soldiers.
Into that conflagration came the Belmont family: a simple storekeeper, his wife, and six children. They lived in Salem, a small farming village which was attacked on Christmas Day, 1834. The warriors were part of the army of the Xhosa chief, Maqoma, seeking revenge for the murder of his brother.
The parents were killed, slaughtered, but with incredible bravery and resourcefulness the children escaped and made their way to Grahams Town, where they were eventually separated and taken into adoption.
This is the story of a father and son, a story which unfolds over two generations and three continents. It is a story of traumatised young men seeking family, and the time and place they have lost and must find, and it has an ending none can have predicted or even welcomed.
Getting into this book was like watching the launch of a space ship.
For a while there was plenty of smoke and fire, but no momentum – like an army marching time – and then the afterburners kicked in and the spectacular lift-off followed.
Peter Cleary methodically sets the scene in the early chapters and I admit that for a while I thought he had lost his fluent touch.
But once the pieces started coming together, the building blocks were established and the picture began emerging at his familiar, incredible pace.
The analogy of a tapestry comes to mind: the reverse side is all loose threads, chaotic and seemingly unconnected. But turn over the completed item and its perfection is obvious.
Based on a fragment of history he unearthed by chance, Peter has methodically and with much research and effort constructed yet another semi-fictional masterpiece.
Whose pen but his could span three generations of ‘damaged’ young men (whose wits are as sharp as their knives), as many continents and as diverse scenes as the Eastern Cape frontier, the Liverpool docks, the Wild West and a Mormon pilgrimage?
By the end, the circle is dramatically completed, with a surprising twist in the tale.
Peter Cleary is a story-teller of the highest order.
He has perfected the knack of drawing the reader into the narrative, making one an accomplice to the story, rather than a passive outsider.
This book is no exception.
*I had the privilege of reading the electronic version – it’s still on the way to the printers!
Dave Savides – Zululand Observer