In 1984, when I was working and travelling my way around Europe for a year, I met a threesome of travellers at a pensione on the island of Crete. Blond, blue-eyed and deeply tanned, I took them for Scandinavians. The three spoke in an accent I had never heard before, not British, nor Australian or American. English was definitely their first language, though. They were not unfriendly, but unlike most travellers I have met, they did not seem keen to talk with the other travellers.
'Where are you from?', I ventured one evening after we had exchanged the perfunctory hellos.
'Rhodesia', said one of the two young men.
'Rhodesia', I said, pondering. 'Isn't that in Africa, near South Africa? It's called Zimbabwe now, isn't it?'
'Yes', he said. 'That's right'.
I don't remember what else he said or what we talked about, but the conversation petered out quickly. He wanted it that way. I couldn't understand then why he and his girlfriend and their mutual friend acted so aloof, why they seemed to consider themselves exiles, and why, above all, they insisted on calling Zimbabwe, 'Rhodesia'.
Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace is set in the newly renamed Zimbabwe and begins in 1983, one year before my meeting with the Rhodesian travellers. Robert Jacklin is 13 years old, and miserable. His father, a civil servant for the British embassy, has dragged his mother and him away from his beloved grandmother and childhood home in England to attend an elite boarding school in the newly independent Zimbabwe.
At the ironically named Haven school, Robert becomes instant friends with Nelson (symbolic?) Ndube, a gentle, intelligent black boy, one of only a handful at the school. The two outsiders vow to watch over each other like brothers in this bootcamp run by racist, bullying prefects still bitter about having lost the 15-year civil war.
Because Robert is the school's only 'Pommie', a Brit, he is scorned by most of the other boys and subjected to older, Head Boy Greet's torments more intensely than the others in his grade. The lonely English boy is desperate for his mother to remove him from the school, but as she sinks deeper into alcoholism and depression he realizes he can no longer depend on her, sealing off his heart from her for protection. As for his well-meaning but ineffectual father, who drones on 'like a history teacher' about the 'outdated ideal of colonialism', the terrible things the whites did to the blacks, and how the new prime minister, Robert Mugabe, is 'a good, peace-loving man', Robert feels only shame.
It's not long before Ivan (The Terrible?) Hascott, starts tormenting Nelson for being black, and working to split up the two outsiders. At first Robert doesn't even like his bullying classmate, but for reasons the newcomer can't explain, there's a certain element of dangerous intensity and charismatic appeal about him that the English boy finds so seductive. So much more appealling than sticking with the saintly Nelson is the relative safety offered by bad boy Ivan's 'friendship'. Soon he dumps Nelson and is spending all his breaks at the Rhodesian boy's family farm, where he meets his new friend's bigotted, abusive father, who has disowned his eldest son for being a 'poof'.
By this point Robert is afraid to lose Ivan's sponsorship, and he knows that the bully will not accept him having any other friends, especially not 'Kaffirs'. You'd understand if you'd seen what the 'gooks' did to us in the war, seems to be Ivan's logic. According to Ivan, 'Africans are born cruel'. It's the way they are, but not all of them are stupid. They often made sure someone was left to tell of what they'd seen. That's what terrorists do'. The irony, of course, is that, like many bullies, Ivan doesn't see himself as one.
In his spare prose, Wallace confront race issues head one, unflinchingly depicting the brutality of war ' both the previous and the ongoing undeclared one. We even learn that one of Ivan's henchmen, Klompie, had a brother who was found "pinned to a tree with his own cock in his throat". Much of the other violence is only alluded to, but this only strengthens the psychological suspense.
After Ivan throws his arm around his new recruit's shoulder and says, 'You belong here. With us', 'us, the English boy is so swelled up with belonging that he'll do almost anything to stay on the ruffian's side. So when Ivan says, 'I just told you what his (Nelson) sort are capable of, you can't trust him. Steer well clear. Don't you see? Don't you'?, Robert does, disturbingly, being to 'see'.
Like Robert, we too begin to 'see'. The author is walking a tightrope here, almost having us sympathize with Ivan and the white supremacists. However, his skilled use of Robert's narration as unwilling accomplice to Ivan's vicious 'games', as well as the technique of repentant foreshadowing, works masterfully. Though we understand Robert's actions, it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathize with his cowardice, so deeply involved is he in Ivan's crimes. But fortunately Robert ' and for us ' he has an epiphany when, in his final year of high school, he runs into Greet, realizing he has become the very bully he despised. The time has come where he must acknowledge what he's known all along: that Ivan is demented, and he must put a stop to the Rhodesian's most ambitious plan yet.
As heart-pumping as the thriller climax is, it is this part of the novel that is its least convincing, as well as completely unnecessary. Far more gripping would have been for Wallace to explore the consequences of Robert's discovery of Ivan's devious Lord-of-the-Flies-style 'games' ' which are only hinted at, but these allusions take us far enough ' and the psychopathology of a character like Ivan. Ivan's actions stem from something much more sinister than anger and cannot be attributed to racism and bitterness alone. Considering all that these boys get away, the reader also has to wonder where the adults are and why they don't have a clue what's going on right under their noses.
If I were still teaching high school English I would definitely use this novel, probably for grades 10 or 11, though the violence and profanity are sure to upset some parents and end up on the American Library Association list's challenged books list. But isn't that the case with so many great novels?
Out of Shadows is an honest, sparely written, profoundly affecting coming of age novel reminiscent of Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One and William Golding's The Lord of the Flies. Wallace's story had me turning pages all through the night, and the next day I was ready to begin reading it all over again. A must read for English teachers, school librarians and anyone interested in African colonial history.