Feed­ing off the lion of Africa

My favourite novel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Adrian d’hage

AS­IN­GLE wild pheas­ant flew up the side of the hill al­most brush­ing the tips of the grass in its flight.’’ From the open­ing sen­tence of Wil­bur Smith’s 1964 de­but novel, When the Lion Feeds, the reader is there, on a sprawl­ing cat­tle prop­erty in South Africa’s Natal re­gion. Born in 1933 in North­ern Rhode­sia (now Zam­bia), Smith knows south­ern Africa well, and it shows. From the fic­tional Candy deep mine, where ‘‘ the boiler was swung up on to its cra­dle by 20 sweat­ing, singing Zu­lus’’, to the forests and hilly coun­try of the bushveld where an ear of the big bull elephant flaps lazily, to the wa­ter­holes, ‘‘ shal­low soup in the cen­tre of a flat ex­panse of dry mud the size of a polo field’’, Smith has a sense of place to which ev­ery au­thor should as­pire. South Africa in the late 1800s was vi­o­lent and un­ruly, char­ac­terised by the in­flu­ence of Bri­tish colo­nial­ism and the Zulu wars and the bat­tles for Isan­dl­wana and Rorke’s Drift. With th­ese his­tor­i­cal events in the back­drop, Smith demon­strates his mas­tery of an­other key el­e­ment of the art of writ­ing: depth of char­ac­ter. We fol­low Sean Court­ney, with all his strengths and faults, from the time he wounds his twin brother, Gar­rick, with a shot­gun, through the fights, the wom­an­is­ing and the drink­ing at Candy’s Ho­tel dur­ing the gold rushes among the rocky hills of Wit­wa­ters-

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