The Undesirables

the undesirablesPublished: 2014
Author: Dave Boling

A great look at our horrific history


A few years ago I was involved in a fabulous book club and we were given the opportunity to review Dave Boling’s Guernica for The Richard and Judy Book Club, this was back in the day when they were still on television. We were all sent a shiny hardback copy of the book to read in advance of our on-screen debut. It was the first time I was sent a book by a publisher and I loved it. Unfortunately I was struck down by a migraine on the day of filming and was unable to join the rest of the Tome Raiders to extol its virtues to the nation (I have no idea why we had to have a name but that’s what we came up with). I was thrilled when almost five years later Picador Books sent me Boling’s second book The Undesirables. This was my opportunity to redress the balance and let the world know my opinion of Boling’s work.

Like Guernica, The Undesirables takes us back to a past conflict and its impact on “ordinary” people. This time it’s the Boer War and how the lives of Afrikaan civilians are ripped apart by the arrival of British troops. Teenager Aletta Venter lives a happy life with her family on their farm when the British invade South Africa. The men go off to fight while the women try to maintain a semblance of normality, until their farm is razed to the ground and they are taken to a concentration camp where they are held in truly inhumane conditions. Through Lettie’s innocent eyes we see the horrors of the camp system, the tensions between family members who have chosen different paths and how friendships can form across the barbed wire fences.

Holocaust Memorial Day was commemorated on Monday of this week and it’s impossible to read The Undesirables and its depiction of the first concentration camps without thinking of the Nazi development of the British invention. Boling’s writing is horrifically evocative of the conditions the women and children endured, I recoiled in horror at a number of scenes. Having said that nothing was written which was exploitative or shocking for the sake of shock value – the merit of having a young narrator.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Undesirables for me was how thought-provoking and challenging I found it. Lettie constantly referred to South Africa as “our land” and expressed her anger at Britain’s imperialist tendencies without any irony. The Dutch were themselves invaders, taking the land from the native Africans and fighting to keep it for themselves. Boling also looks at the experiences of the Boers who surrender to the British in order to save their property from destruction. Can we really condemn them? Would we do the same? And can we hate the young British soldiers like Maples who are guarding the camps? It’s a wicked thing they are doing but are they wicked people?

The Undesirables is a wonderful book which brings to wider knowledge a shameful period of European and African history in a brilliantly readable fashion. Boling is a brilliant writer, I hope it’s not 5 years until his next book but if that’s what he needs to maintain such a high standard then so be it.

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