If Australia has a latter-day Dickens, Courtenay is surely him. _The Power of One_ is episodic, melodramatic, crowded with incident and laden with horrors presented in a way that may entertain a light reader but have the power to appall a more careful one. Needless to say, Courtenay is unbelievably successful, altho only this book of his has been published in the US, as near as I can tell.
I read this for my book group, and as always, it was fascinating to see how we all agreed on some things, but otherwise got very different things from reading this book. It was a reread for a couple people, and I did not finish it in time. The two who had read it already had read the sequel, _Tandia_, also, but not been as impressed by it.
Oddly, no one other than me cared much for the boxing story. Go figure. The plot is available in great detail on wikipedia.
Stuff I really enjoyed: (1) Language: Afrikaans is close enough to Dutch that if I'm handed a passage, I can't reliably tell the two apart. There is a glossary in the back, but it didn't include everything. Courtenay does an above-average job of conveying in English that various speakers in the book are speaking in different languages (Shangaan, English, Afrikaans, etc.) without wrenching the crap out of idiomatic language. (2) The boxing descriptions: yes, PK is the white guy who can beat a black boxer, so definitely some annoyingness here, but for the most part, his fights are against Boers, not blacks. Courtenay did an above-average job of describing individual fights in a comprehensible and believable way, depicted coaching well, and, best of all, did a bang up job of conveying how mental boxing is. Technique matters. Footwork matters. But the champions use the ring in a way that the rest do not, and Courtenay conveyed that really well. (3) Some sidelights on racism were perfect -- in particular, PK at the prison concert notes that there's no way he'd have felt he could conduct a bunch of white prisoners, but in South Africa at that time, it didn't even occur to him to question whether he could conduct the singing of a bunch of black prisoners.
What I really didn't care for: the whole Tadpole Angel thing. The world does not need yet another White Messiah for the Black Folk. A lot of plot had to be finessed to fit the character: why PK didn't go home to visit Doc for the school break in which Doc would ultimately die -- he knew it was about to happen, and the whole oh-Mrs. Boxall-sez-he's-fine didn't wash for me; going off to work in the mines didn't make a lot of sense, but if it was going to be explained, I'd have been more willing to believe one of two explanations. (1) I'm doing it for the money, much like guys who go off to work in the Alaska canneries or fishing boats to make some big money in a few months (boy, does that date me?). (2) After the Rhodes rejection, he explicitly decided he couldn't stand the thought of attending any college in South Africa, and so he decided he'd go do something else, anything else. Casting about, he realized he felt trapped by the people around him, and felt like everything was too easy and he needed a Real Challenge. Both of these are touched upon, but the overall explanation was completely uncompelling.
Finally, it sort of bothered me that no one really pressed to understand _why_ he wanted to be called Peekay (as in, what does PK stand for?). It seems like if someone had dug down and got the explanation, he might have been able to get over that rock-bottom believe that he really was a pisshead, that he really deserved to have everyone peeing on him. Morrie got closer, but Morrie's reaction was absolutely opposite from what PK needed -- Morrie has this superficial idea that Adventure is Cool and growing up rich and well-loved was boring and worthless. Idiot. PK did not need anyone's pity (because, for one thing, there were a lot of other people who needed compassion even more), but he could have used an empathetic listener who could get him thinking and talking about how those early experiences shaped him, and how they were going to continue warping him into violent and unloving settings unless he worked to counter those early experiences.
That said, Courtenay did a fantastic job of showing how early experiences shape an adolescent and adult. He may have done it by retelling his own stories and those of people he knew and loved, but that's okay by me.
Should you read it? Probably, with the warning that while the top two levels are good depictions of race and ethnic struggles in South Africa, there is still a lot of apparently unconsidered embedded racism.
Expanding slightly more on that "lot of apparently". Several book club members and reviewers found via google state outright that PK is not racist, despite his environment. While PK is clearly much more aware of the injustice of South Africa, and more open to recognizing blacks as people, PK cannot be reasonably described as not racist, and indeed he points out along the way how his actions show embedded racism (e.g. above mentioned conducting in prison). I could go a couple of ways on the casual use of the term "kaffir"; I don't approve of people who call Mark Twain racist for using the n-word in time, place and character appropriate dialogue, so it would be hypocritical for me to go after Courtenay for same. My biggest issue lies with all of the black or half-caste men who die to protect PK, and the white messiah for black folk theme. Rasputin dying to save PK does a lot to mitigate the former, but it's tough to imagine how anyone's going to weasel _The Power of One_ out of the latter problem.
This is kind of interesting, but only mentions Courtenay in passing.http://aboriginalrights.suite101.com/article.cfm/costnercomplexhttp://www.sparknotes.com/lit/power/themes.html
Sparknotes mentions the identity of logic with white and magic/mystery/hope with blacks, another unfortunate racist embed.
Gideon Mandoma's speech about how they'll still be enslaved even if freed, if they remain ignorant, in the context of a school run by a bunch of white boys, is also kinda disturbing.
Back in 2004, when this book group was started, we read _The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency_ by Alexander McCall Smith. I complained about a number of issues with that book as well. I'd like to be _really_ clear here. The problems with _The Power of One_ are quite mninor by comparison.