Book for May 2009
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 concentrates his story alternately on many different characters and families, including a pioneering film journalist and his sceptical 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.
He worked as a journalist for Media Week magazine, then became an assistant editor on the Times Literary Supplement. He was deputy literary editor of The Guardian between 1995 and 2006 and is currently Fellow in Creative and Performing Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and still contributes regularly to The Guardian and other journals..
His first novel The Last King of Scotland (1998), is set during Idi Amin's rule of Uganda in the 1970s. It won the Whitbread First Novel Award, a Somerset Maugham Award, a Betty Trask Award and the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. The 2006 feature film, The Last King of Scotland starred Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy