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Book Review: The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

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Bryce Courtenay has always seemed like a bit of a ‘wild-card’ to me. Some people read his books and rave about them; others say that his books lack pizzazz and that his writing leaves a lot to be desired. I could never comment on these musings, as I had never gotten around to picking up one of his books, despite having at least five or six of his more notable titles floating around the house.

For my first Bryce Courtenay read, I decided to go with The Power of One. This was the novel that Courtenay fans always seemed to love the most, and even those people who didn’t fancy Matthew Flinders’ Cat and Jessica would always begrudgingly admit that it was a good read. At 629 pages (of reasonably small print) I was somewhat intimidated, but resolved that I would get through it, no matter how long it took.

The Power of One is set in South Africa during the 1940s and 1950s, and is told from the perspective of Peekay, a man who is reflecting on the events of his youth. The book examines the racism that was rife throughout South Africa throughout the 1940s and 1950s in great detail and repeatedly brings up themes such as tolerance, courage, and perseverance. The novel charts Peekay’s life, from his ghastly experiences as a six year old at boarding school, to his chance meeting with Hoppie Gronewald, who instills in him an unquenchable desire to be a world champion boxer; from his untraditional, yet incredibly effective education with Doc, Miss Boxall, and Miss Bornstein, to his experiences at a prestigious high school and a final meeting with his childhood tormentor.

Overall, The Power of One is an incredible book. It is inspirational, beautifully written, and features one of the most incredible protagonists I have ever had the privilege of reading. The idea of fighting for the greater good and of perseverance, even in the face of hardship is one which I think every reader would find enlightening. However, I found that this book took a while to pick up momentum, and I didn’t find myself totally invested in the characters and the story for around 200 pages. This was — in my opinion — the biggest weakness of The Power of One. This is interesting, because throughout the first 200 pages, many important events occur, which are present throughout the rest of the book. These events are thoroughly intriguing, yet I didn’t feel intrigued whilst reading them. They seemed to lack the emotional punch that many of the later scenes featured. Whilst being happy that I did persevere and finish the novel, I can imagine that many readers would not have the patience to plough through 200 pages of so-so storytelling, in order to get to the life-changing stuff. But, who knows? Maybe other readers were hooked from page one.

The characters within The Power of One were absolutely delightful and masterfully created. For me, it was the characters which made the words jump off the page and into my heart. Peekay, Doc, Miss Boxall, Miss Bornstein, Geel Pit, Hymie, and countless others all brought something unique and satisfying to The Power of One. I was so invested in these characters — each with their own personal demons to fight — that I found myself crying when something negative happened to them, laughing when they succeeded in something, and gasping along with them when the unexpected occurred. These characters were so real and lifelike that it was disappointing to finish the novel, realizing that I wouldn’t be privy to any more outrageous schoolboy gambling schemes masterminded by Hymie, and would never go back to the small town of Baberton with Peekay to play chess with old Mr. Bornstein and catch up with the young boxers at the prison.

For me personally, the difference between a great book and a good book can be determined solely upon how you feel when you have to put the book down for a moment. When leaving a great book for a little while, feelings of distress often arise, and you might find your mind wandering back to the characters and what they are going to get up to next, when you should be working or driving or doing anything that isn’t reading said book. Whereas a book that is simply good is much easier to put down, and you may pick it up a few hours later, happy that you can continue reading, but not filled with the crazy desire to know what’s going to happen to your new best friends next. The Power of One definitely goes into the ‘great book’ category for me.

Overall, I was glad I read The Power of One. It was one of the most inspirational books I have read in a long time, and left the reader with a strong message of courage, hope, and the importance of persevering for the greater good. Although there was a lot of death and cruelty within the novel, the primary message was one of love and hope. The Power of One, even though it was written two decades ago, contains ideas and messages that are still very relevant today. It is a thoroughly rewarding read, and has definitely made me think twice about dismissing Bryce Courtenay books before reading them.

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  • Tom

    “Hymie”? Do you mean “Morrie Levy”?