Siege mentality

Ladysmith

Giles Foden <em>Faber & Faber, 366pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0571197337

When the Boers declared war almost exactly 100 years ago, propagandists in Britain declared confidently, as they would do again 15 years later, that it would all be over by Christmas. Instead, as Thomas Pakenham has shown in his classic history of the conflict, the South African war that began in October 1899 cost more than £200 million and ended the lives of 22,000 British soldiers, up to 35,000 Boers (including as many as 28,000 men, women and children in British concentration camps) and at least 12,000 black Africans. It was the bloodiest, most expensive and, at two-and-three-quarter years, longest war in which Britain was involved between 1815 and 1914. In its immediate aftermath there was a deluge of diaries, multi-volume histories and novels. But now the South African war has been all but erased from the British popular imagination, its moral ambiguities overshadowed by the two huge conflicts that subsequently dominated the 20th century. One suspects that few today learn at school about the confrontation that its contemporaries misrepresented as "a gentleman's war" and "a white man's war". Giles Foden's second novel, following his prize-winning debut, The Last King of Scotland, is an audacious and valuable corrective: a meticulous recreation of the Boer war and a memorable panorama of a world in transition.

Ladysmith is the Natal town where, for 118 days, a population of nearly 14,000 British soldiers and 5,500 civilians (including nearly 2,500 Africans and 300 Indians) was pinned down by the Boer General Joubert and his huge artillery batteries. Foden tells the stories of a great gang of characters, some fictional "and some drawn from history", among them the radical journalist Henry Nevinson of the Daily Chronicle, the Daily Mail's George Steevens, who died slowly of typhoid during the siege, a gnomic Mahatma Gandhi and the young Winston Churchill in swashbuckling mode.

The white-hot pieces of shrapnel that burst out of the Boer shells slice through the thin membrane enclosing Victorian civilisation. The old order of deference, privilege, decorum and cleanliness is fleetingly swept away, affording the people of Ladysmith a glimpse of the new ways in which races, classes and sexes will relate to each other in the 20th century. Two sisters are able to give expression to their budding sexuality, while a young homosexual is drawn out of the closet. Foden summons up effectively the claustrophobia of life under siege and the humiliation and dreadful expectation it engenders, while his descriptions of the sound of a shell screaming through the air, the bloody mutilations of battle and the surreal horror of what happens to people's bodies when a missile packed with metal shards explodes overhead are vivid.

Ladysmith bears comparison with J G Farrell's Booker prize-winning novel of the Indian mutiny, The Siege of Krishnapur, even if it does not quite match Farrell's for wit or grandeur. And Foden's themes are very different: Ladysmith is an enclosed order, a means by which to investigate the deontic values of obligation, permissibility and loyalty. As events develop, the fidelity of individual characters to the ideals of empire and country, comradeship, community and family are tested to breaking point. Yet Foden's own fidelity to his characters, their humanity and three-dimensional integrity, is found wanting in Ladysmith. His pellucid account of the material effects of the siege is impressive, but his characters' responses to it seem strangely flat. True, there is an outbreak of sensuality among the young, but older figures seem oddly robust and consistent. One can understand why Foden allows his great historical actors to speechify; what is more difficult to grasp is quite why he is unable to represent with full emotional and moral force the effects that typhoid, dysentery, starvation, shelling and general bloody carnage have on the self. The events of the novel briefly impress themselves on the characters, but more often than not their personalities spring rapidly back to their original shapes.

The Last King of Scotland suggested that Giles Foden has impeccable instincts for a story. Ladysmith confirms this absolutely and demonstrates a rare willingness to tackle complex historical and political questions. Yet his first book left one with the uneasy feeling that, apart from the deranged figure of Idi Amin, the author was not wholly committed to his creations. In Ladysmith, with its greater and more impressive sweep, Foden has produced a novel that is even more engrossing. The feeling that he's more interested in story than character and language still stands, but it is an extremely accomplished novel.