Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Great Karoo

By Fred Stenson

When I first picked up The Great Karoo I was anticipating a novel comparable to Three Day Road (Boyden), another story of Canadians at war. However unlike Three Day Road (which I would have read in one sitting if the need for food and sleep hadn’t interrupted), I found The Great Karoo to be a bit of a struggle.

The Great Karoo is primarily a story of Western Canadians fighting in the Boer War. The story line follows Frank Adams, a cowboy from Alberta who signs up with the Canadian Mounted Rifles, through training, across the ocean to South Africa, crossing the Great Karoo Desert, and into the thick of the fighting.

Frank is certainly not the best soldier Canada ever produced, but he manages to survive, and through the lens of his experience we see the war, its conduct, and the relationships these men develop with each other, their horses, and even, in some cases, the enemy.

I found the book interesting from an historical perspective as I learned a few things about the Boer War I didn’t know before. But surprisingly, for all the rich potential of the story, I found the tone of the book to be confusing, and even somewhat impassionate. The Great Karoo couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a war story, a story about the relationships between these Westerners, a story about South Africa, or a love story. The seeds were there – bits of all four were scattered about – but they never germinated into the fulsome, engaging tale of adventure, war, and personal experiences I was expecting. Consequently I developed no emotional attachment to the story or any of the characters – historical or fictional. Frankly by the end of the book it mattered not one whit to me who survived and who didn’t; I just didn’t care enough for any of the characters to celebrate their safe return or mourn their loss.

It took me a long time to read The Great Karoo as I could only read 5-10 pages at a time before something more interesting would attract my attention. That perhaps was partly the reason I couldn’t get “into” it - a bit of chicken and egg here – I didn’t commit the time to become consumed by the story, and I wasn't consumed by the story so didn’t expend the time and effort. So it could just be me and the head space I was in when reading this book, but I’m not so sure....

Is it “A truly magnificent novel” as David Adams Richards enthuses on the cover? Not in my opinion. It’s an interesting read and worth the effort if you are curious about the role of Canadians in the Boer War, but it’s certainly not a page-turner, and surely not “a deeply satisfying novel” as claimed on the overleaf.

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