Peake, Tony. “North Facing,” Myriad Editions, 2018.
During one long, intense week in October, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought with it an East-West standoff and the possibility of nuclear holocaust. On the other side of the world, in Pretoria, a group of boys look to the horizon for signs that the world is about to end.
Paul Harvey is a sensitive and isolated young man who really wants to fit in more than anything. He was invited to join a gang of the most popular students and will do whatever he needs to in order to please the ringleader, Andre du Toit. What we see here in microcosm is the corruption of the wider society by the power struggles and cruelties of damaged little rich boys. We soon become aware that it is inevitable that will lead to an inadvertent betrayal with terrible consequences and resonances.
“North Facing” is a touching look at a teenage boy’s gradual comprehension of the reality of racism and politics in South Africa in the 1960s. We share a pivotal moment in Paul’s life as he attempts to ingratiate himself into the bully’s secret club. The tasks that Paul has to execute expose a clandestine relationship between the black gardener and a liberal teacher, but Paul realizes this when it is already too late. Switching between the teenage Paul, and the adult revisiting his past, Tony Peake takes us into a boys’ boarding school environment that he describes vividly. In doing so, he re-creates the angst and awkwardness of many a teen, as well as the complex motivations of adolescence. We also see a sensitive and subtle treatment of social injustice and atonement.
The story shifts between St Luke’s, a private boarding school for boys in 1962, and the present time. Mandela has been arrested as a result of a CIA tip of which has set off chain of events leading him to become internationally known; and on the other side of the world, the Cuban Missile crisis is unfolding.
The boys at St Luke’s realize that something extremely serious, perhaps even dangerous, is going on but do not really understand what it entails causing edgy tension which builds as the story unfolds. We see how children don’t see the full picture of what is happening in the world. They live and experience their own smaller universes, and it is only with the hindsight of adulthood that they can make sense of how people behaved and why.
Paul Harvey, born in South Africa, is the only child of English parents and he is an intelligent rather quiet boy who has an extremely close relationship with his mother. She is ambivalent about living in South Africa, and conveys that feeling to her son. At school most children want to be recognized by, and included in, what is seen as the dominant peer group – and Paul is no exception. An Afrikaner farmer’s son, Andre du Toit is a bullying boy who rules his little gang and the members of the group are all desperate for his approval. Eventually he invites Paul to join the club. This leads to a series of events that Paul doesn’t quite understand, but which have devastating consequences for some of the teachers and staff at the school.
The latter part of the book is when Paul, now in late middle-age returns to South Africa and goes on a private quest to correct the wrongs he thinks he unwittingly did when a schoolboy. He has carried an uneasy burden of guilt for many years. “North Facing” is a depiction those cruel, difficult, yet exhilarating times in a country that was mostly cut off from the world at large.