Bryce Courtenay
Comments 19

When Good People Write Bad Books.

There is, quite honestly, nothing worse than reading a bad book.

The indecision it provokes is the hardest.

Should I soldier on and hope for an incredibly unexpected fantastic ending that makes the whole thing worthwhile?

Should I mark my place and slide it back onto the bookshelf, set aside for some point in the future when I have more time or more patience?

Should I burn it so no one else has to read the same poorly constructed sentences and farcical story line that I am currently being assaulted with?

I think the worst part is knowing that the hours you spend reading a bad book could be spent far more enjoyably reading, well, a GOOD book. Let’s face it, we all have a restricted number of hours a day that we can hide ourselves away with a book, and those hours are very precious and often hard-won. They deserve to be enjoyed, appreciated, embraced. Not spent with half your mind wondering if you would be better off seeing if there is anything decent on television.

I read a book about six months ago that was so bad it almost made me cry. Not simply because the book itself was an abomination, which it truly was, but because it was written by someone who I had considered to be an excellent author. Furthermore, it was actually the long awaited prequel to a truly excellent trilogy, one of those books that you imagine is going to open up an entirely new perspective on the story. It is no exaggeration to say that this book was pure rubbish, but I carried on to the final page in the hopes that perhaps I was missing something, or there would be some final twist which would make the preceding crap fall into place. I wasn’t. It didn’t. I was so disappointed after finishing this book that I immediately text a friend of mine who also loves this author, to check if it was just me. It wasn’t. I also checked reviews of the book online to see if there was some deeper meaning. There wasn’t.

I was so mortified by this betrayal, yes, betrayal, by this much loved author that I haven’t picked up any of her books since. And I own seven different books by her. I’m not going to delve further into this particular example, because it makes me upset just thinking about it. And I fear that I am starting to sound somewhat like a crazy book lady…

Instead, I want to talk about another pretty disappointing book that I have read lately.

It is important to note that this next example is in fact not rubbish, rather, it is quite eloquently written. It has a gripping story line, it is intriguing, heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure. So why the disappointment?

Well, the book I am speaking of is Whitethorn, written by one of my homeboys, Bryce Courtenay. And the thing is, when you love an author as much as I love Courtenay, you admittedly hold them to a higher standard than your average writer.

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The reason I felt so let down by this book is, I feel as though Courtenay has written it before. In fact, it mimics his highly acclaimed novel The Power of One so closely that I thought there had been a misprint along the way.

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The novels both follow the lives of young English speaking boys growing up in a heavily dominated Afrikaner South Africa. They face overwhelming oppression, persecution and hardship in their young lives, but manage to overcome it by way of their above average intelligence. They both have black African friends who have a huge impact on them in their youth, and through this shape their future destinies. They both spend time working as grizzlies on the Rhodesian copper mines, an occupation which features heavily throughout many of Courtenay’s novels. And they both become lawyers, fighting the oppression of black African’s in a heavily racist Afrikaner society.

Um, that is pretty damn similar, isn’t it. The only problem is that Whitethorn is perhaps not quite so well written as The Power of One, and obviously I was unable to read it without a constant comparison running through my head. The tension that Courtenay carries off throughout The Power of One is missing somewhat in Whitethorn. Key pieces of information, withheld in earlier chapters throughout the book, are divulged with little to no impact in later chapters. Similarly, the ending arrives as an anti-climax, the story seems to trail away to a bit of an obvious conclusion.

The amount of loss that the protagonist, Tom, has to deal with throughout this novel is also a bit overwhelming. Courtenay is renowned for his sympathetic yet brutal portrayal of heartbreak and loss throughout his novels, but I felt like this one carried it a bit too far. I almost couldn’t handle the amount of deaths wrapped up within this story, I have no idea how the protagonist was expected to carry on. Little time was given to his grieving, making it even harder to digest.

Overall, the novel felt rushed and underwritten in comparison to Courtenay’s other novels. And that, my friends, is the most important line of this entire review:

In comparison to HIS other novels. 

It is only in comparison to Courtenay’s usual outstanding brilliance that I make these harsh judgements. Had Whitethorn been the first novel of Courtenay’s that I had ever picked up, I would have been blown away by its story, its eloquence, its tragic detail. Had I not been so familiar with his usual writing style I would probably not have made any of the critiques that I have made here. The story is powerful, gripping, chilling; but sadly it just doesn’t measure up to what I know him to be capable of. Don’t get me wrong, it is staying in pride of place amongst my Courtenay collection, and I may even read it again in years to come. I am certainly not suggesting that you never read it, but perhaps prioritise exploring some of his other works first.

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One of its most redeeming qualities is the voice of the narrator, Tom. The novel follows his life from the age of six until he is in his mid twenties, and Courtenay manages to capture his voice at every age with a delicacy and consistency that is often missing from books. I’m sure that at some point you have read a book written in the voice of a child which is laughable in its execution, or changes stagnantly chapter to chapter as the narrator grows. I wasn’t even aware of the shift in voice in Whitethorn until I was, it was so subtle and so natural.

Which proves the point that Courtenay at his worst is better than most at their best.

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Power, I had long since learned, cannot be trusted, it will always abuse, it cannot understand the viewpoint of those who have no say or ability to change things, and it is always self-serving. I have never seen an exception to this, a situation where power justified its actions.

– Bryce Courtenay, Whitethorn. 

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19 Comments

    • Haha thanks. Sometimes I’ll write the whole post before thinking up a title, other times, such as this, the title triggers the post 🙂

  1. Wilbur Smith’s roommate really demonise Afrikaners, and I am one… But like André P Brink said: We are not all like that…

      • Ahh I see. You’re right, he does tend to demonise Afrikaners in his novels. I think he is usually portraying a completely different generation though. And of course only one small segment of a much larger society.

      • Of course it might just be urban legend as well, in South Africa the truth do not have to ruin a good story… 🙂

      • Haha nowhere does the truth have to ruin a good story!! I haven’t read any Wilbur Smith, is he worth a read?

      • He is a better writer than Courtenay in my opinion. But his newest book- Vicious Circle, is just too cruel to my taste… But he is the best writer from South Africa, closely followed by Deon Meyer… (my opinion, of course there would be André P. Brink, and JM Coetzee and a lot of others contending for that award…) But do try a Wilbur Smith, just be aware that a lot of his books are written as a series of African families like the Courtneys. Or his Ancient Egyptian series like The River God/Warlock/ Seventh Scroll…

      • I’ll be sure to check him out! My favourite Courtenay books are actually his ones set in Australia. I’m biased 🙂

  2. I did make a mistake- it was John Gordon Davis who was Wilbur Smith’s roommate- the author of “Hold my hand, I’m dying…”

  3. Lovely book reviews…and I do so understand your point of view. I too have found myself mixed up in a shoddy written book and hesitate putting it down (or perhaps burning it) because hope is the last to die. It’s also sad when a good author starts plagerizing him/her self. I says to me that the market has maybe gotten to be more important than creativity…perhaps not, maybe creativity just isn’t a bottomless well, but the need to write is compelling.

    • Thanks Bastet! I know, I was questioning why Courtenay wrote this as well. The baffling this is that he wrote over twenty different books, and there was a 16 year gap between The Power of One (1989) and Whitethorn (2005). And he wrote plenty of excellent original books after 2005. Strange, isn’t it!

  4. Interesting questions! Several of my favorite authors write basically the same story from slightly different angles. At the best it underscores the reality of how we each experience similar problems and challenges differently, Chaim Potok is a master at this. So why is it that other writers who do write well is not able to do it as eloquently? The first example that comes to my mind is the Cathedral building and 20ieth century history series by Ken Follett. Even if they are interesting and exciting the same problems are lived through in new books, but the persons do not change, only their names. Perhaps they only write from one dimension, perhaps they never talked and listened to anybody but themselves? Perhaps they did not even explore the wealth of different approaches they themselves could have taken? The worst books are those where the author over and over tries to defend her/his own view through new protagonists….

    • Wow, I’m really interested that you say that about Ken Follett’s books. I have only read ‘Fall of Giants’, and I absolutely loved it. I’m looking forward to reading the rest, but it will be interesting to see the similarities in characters that you mention, and whether it makes the rest of the books a little dull. His characterisations in Fall of Giants were excellent I thought. Great comment! Thanks for sharing 🙂

      • Would be great to get your opinion when you are done then! The Follett books have the saving quality that they tell history in an interesting way though, so that way it’s a good read!

      • I agree, in fact, after I read Fall of Giants my first thought was, why don’t they teach history like this in high-school?? Ill be putting his books on my Christmas wish list for sure 🙂

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