Ladysmith

Giles Foden, Author Alfred A. Knopf $25 (304p) ISBN 978-0-375-40920-2
Under siege for 120 days during the Boer War (1899-1901), the motley inhabitants of a South African town go to pieces in Foden's meticulously researched but ultimately unfocused historical novel inspired by letters written by Foden's great-grandfather, a British trooper in the war. Though the Boer forces surround Ladysmith, home of a British garrison, the townspeople don't expect the fighting to last long. The English General Buller is said to be on the way with reinforcements vastly outnumbering the Boer forces. But the siege wears on for months, and the people of Ladysmith become accustomed to horrific wartime hardships. In addition to the destruction and carnage of the ongoing shelling, a combination of too much livestock and too little food and water cause pestilence and famine. The difficulties and indignities exact a heavy psychic toll as well. Martial law is in force; homeless women and children shelter in holes in the ground and bathe in a dung-filled river; and horseflesh becomes a staple. Foden (The Last King of Scotland) concentrates his story alternately on many different characters and families, including a pioneering film journalist and his skeptical print-journalism colleagues, a covert Irish nationalist running a hotel with his daughters, soldiers of all ranks and loyalties, indentured African natives, European expats and even such historical figures as Churchill and Gandhi. This spreads the narrative so thin, however, that no true protagonist emerges. Pulled in several directions by the multiple stories and the many shifts of narrative point of view, the reader never comes to truly understand any of these people, whose lives seem sketchy against the almost painfully vivid depictions of the war. But Foden's simple, elegant writing and his ability to conjure milieu go a long way toward redeeming his scattered tale. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 02/28/2000
Release date: 03/01/2000
Genre: Fiction
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-0-7540-0665-7
Paperback - 366 pages - 978-0-571-20366-6
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-0-375-70837-4
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