Book review: An Honourable Man by Gillian Slovo

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General Charles Gordon, better known as the legendary Gordon of Khartoum, is the unlikely hero of a powerful and emotive new novel from a writer noted for her socialist feminist crime stories.

Ice Road, her new slant on Stalin’s terrors and the horror of the siege of Leningrad, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and Red Dust, a thriller set in her native South Africa, was turned into a film starring Hilary Swank.

In An Honourable Man, Slovo uses her impressive intellect and writing skills to paint a vivid picture of the last days of the eccentric British commander who was besieged and then killed by a rebel force in Khartoum, Sudan, in January 1885.

Two parallel stories feature a young English doctor, who has volunteered to join a camel corps of relief troops sent to rescue Gordon, and the misadventures of his abandoned London-based wife who finds consolation in the opium-based drug laudanum.

While the once ebullient Gordon starts to sink under the weight of his doomed mission, Dr John Clarke and his lonely wife Mary gain strength from adversity and a new understanding of themselves and their relationship.

Political and social issues, the barrenness of Victorian women’s lives, the folly of Empire and the bravado and brutal realities of militarism and heroism jostle with a compelling tale of three people and their different destinies.

In late 1884, General Gordon stands on the roof of his fortress in Khartoum as the city is besieged by the forces of self-proclaimed Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed.

Gordon, who was dispatched to the Sudan by the British Government to oversee the evacuation of Egyptian soldiers and civilians stranded by the revolt, has vowed to fight the Mahdi to the death despite disquiet in political circles at home over his actions.

Side by side with the increasingly listless general is Will, the despairing and desperate boy he rescued on a whim from the dockyard slums at Gravesend and who is now acting as his unofficial batman and reluctant last ally.

Approaching with the camel corps is Dr Clarke who has joined the expedition to rescue Gordon after an overwhelming and what he comes to see as a selfish compulsion to follow his own desires.

Troubled by feelings of guilt over leaving his wife and coping with heat so intense that it leaves the insides of mouths ‘desiccated,’ Clarke struggles to be the hero of his imagining as the men make agonising progress across the desert.

Back in London, as controversy rages over Gordon’s sanity and the rights and wrongs of the rescue expedition, Mary finds herself adrift and reliant on laudanum, an addiction that will take her into Victorian London’s darkest corners.

Threaded throughout the action is the zealous campaign of support for the Gordon rescue mission orchestrated by the uncompromising figure of W T Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and father of tabloid journalism, and the mixed fortunes of Rebecca Jarrett, a ‘fallen woman’ rescued by the Salvationists and with whom Mary shares a strange sense of familiarity.

Slovo writes with a disarming straightforwardness which allows us to make our own judgements as events and characters slowly unfold. Unfettered by hyperbole or over-egged action, the story’s dominance and beauty lies in its raw truths, studied psychology and evocative landscapes.

From the epic last stand and conscience struggle of a national hero to the harsh learning curve of an ambitious doctor and the domestic battles of a lonely and desperate woman, Slovo’s book is a masterpiece of mental and geographical exploration.

(Virago, hardback, £14.99)