GREAT READS FOR DECEMBER, 2017
Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah
Well, Trevor has certainly been gifted with the will, but reaching the top has been a scrambling, rocky ascent – for half-white half-black Trevor shouldn’t have been born at all: in 80’s Apartheid South Africa it was legally a crime for the two races to cohabit. Naturally, this didn’t prevent the mingling of the races, but the punishments were severe: jail terms of five years or four years (depending on who was doing the mingling – a black man or woman doing the deed with a European got five years, but a white European of either sex cohabiting with a native of either sex was sentenced to four years).
Babies, the consequences of all this sin, were taken away from their mothers to subsist in orphanages, kept there until they were teenagers, then released into an uncaring world where they would always be outsiders because of their indeterminate colour – at least if you were black or white, you knew WHAT you were in Apartheid South Africa. You knew your place. Being pale enough to be not-quite-white just didn’t cut it.
Trevor’s mum Patricia, a member of the Xhosa tribe, was well aware of the pitfalls and trials of bringing a baby into the world, but being of a fiercely independent and rebellious nature, she decided to have a child anyway, because she wanted a child to love her and depend on her, somebody of her own – the only problem being her choice of father: a Swiss German who was not interested in parenthood, and had to be persuaded over time to see that it was a good idea. Really? For when Trevor was born the can of worms truly opened: Trevor’s mum had to find a coloured friend to go walking with them , the friend masquerading as The Mum; Trevor was never allowed to call his father ‘Daddy’ in public, he had to address him as ‘Robert’, and when Patricia decided to introduce her beloved child to her estranged Xhosa family in Soweto, she endangered them all in her subterfuge, for they could not publicly acknowledge Trevor as their new grandson: he was the wrong COLOUR, for Heaven’s sake, so he was never allowed out of the back yard – from which he frequently escaped.
For Trevor was just as rebellious as his beloved mum, and this hugely entertaining autobiography chronicles his childhood and youth living on the outside even within his own family, but it demonstrates too, his resilience, resourcefulness and the enormous optimism and humour required to survive in such adversity.
And don’t forget prayer! For rebellious Patricia was so deeply religious that she dragged Trevor off to pray at three different churches every Sunday, whether he wanted to go or not: the Spiritual, speaking-in-tongues church, the European church, and the native church. There: all holy again till next Sunday. Magic! SIX STARS
The Last Tudor, by Philippa Gregory
Ms Gregory is justly famous for her fine and meticulously researched historical novels concerning the power struggles of the Plantagenets and Tudors, those medieval rulers of England who transformed their little country into a force to be feared throughout Europe, culminating with Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church so that he could marry ‘for love’ and get himself a son – which he did, (after two daughters to two queens) but his beloved Edward did not live beyond fifteen. To maintain the strong and legitimate succession of an heir to the throne in the new and true faith the Privy Council decides on Lady Jane Grey, great-niece of Henry and eldest of three sisters who are royal princesses in their own right.
Jane is deeply religious but also conscious of the responsibilities of her great new office; she is reluctant to be queen but the only other alternative is Princess Mary, daughter of Katharine of Aragon – also deeply religious but of the Old Faith: the people will never accept her!
But they do. Princess Mary brings an army to London to reinforce her claim as legitimate heir and Jane, ‘Nine Days a Queen’ is imprisoned in the Tower, where so many other luckless prisoners have languished. Mary then goes on a royal rampage to avenge all the members of her faith who have been persecuted by the Protestants. ‘Bloody Mary’ is feared and hated in due course but no-one escapes her wrath, including Lady Jane the Usurper: she is beheaded, her body quartered and buried without ceremony in the Tower crypt. The first Protestant Martyr is in Heaven.
Lady Jane’s two younger sisters, Katherine and Mary, do not fare well either in their dealings with Queen Mary’s successor Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn; Elizabeth has been declared a bastard, hidden from sight and maligned for most of her young life: now she has the ultimate power, and she and her powerful council will wield it to England’s best advantage. Her autocracy extends to her Ladies-in-waiting: none of them may marry without her permission –which she seldom gives, and when Katherine enters into a secret marriage with Ned Seymour, handsome son of an ancient and noble house, Elizabeth’s rage is such that they are both imprisoned in the Tower. ‘For as long as it may please Her Majesty.’
For they have produced a child, a healthy boy – an heir to the Throne - which Elizabeth cannot achieve, especially as she has no husband. Her jealousy is absolute and the Grey family endure persecution on the grand scale, even the youngest sister Mary.
Crouchback Mary, stunted Mary, deformed of stature but not of heart, ordered to be Elizabeth’s Lady-in-waiting, but still able to enjoy her life despite the Queen’s best efforts to make her miserable – until her unpermitted marriage also has her imprisoned. Elizabeth will not be defied, even by a Little Person.
Each of the Grey sisters narrates their own part in this hugely entertaining chronicle of a savage and turbulent era: Ms Gregory’s great characterisations and fine prose enable these giants of history to live again – as well they should. FIVE STARS