North Facing

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‘This beautiful, moving novel is vast in how much it recounts and how deeply it makes us feel’—Edmund White

A novel of awakening and atonement, this exquisitely realised story revisits a seminal boyhood moment as it plays out — with unexpected and sinister consequences — against the backdrop of political upheaval in South Africa.

For one long, intense week in October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought with it an East-West stand-off and the possibility of nuclear holocaust. On the other side of the globe, in Pretoria, a group of schoolboys scan the horizon for signs that the world is about to end.

There is political tension here too, and the power struggles and cruelties of the boys mirror the corruption of a deeply divided country. Paul Harvey – sensitive, isolated, and desperate to fit in at school despite his English heritage – will do whatever is needed to please the class ringleader, Andre du Toit.

Now in his sixties and living abroad, Paul is drawn back to South Africa to confront the unexpected and chilling consequences of this seminal boyhood moment – and the part he unwittingly played in the drama that unfolded.

A Life in Books

17 November 2017

The theme of adults manipulating children isn’t an unusual one in fiction – Atonement and The Go-Between are obvious examples – but the setting of Tony Peake’s new novel stood out for me. In it a man in his sixties has returned to South Africa where he was at boarding school, remembering the events which came to a climax as the world held its breath in the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis when he was twelve years old.

Paul is working his way towards the small town of Mokimolle. It’s the first time he’s been back to South Africa since he was a schoolboy, teased mercilessly by Afrikaans boys for his English parentage. Paul was a sensitive child, desperate to fit in and determined to join Andre du Toit’s club with its despotic rules. Unexpectedly invited into the inner sanctum, he was tasked with stealing anything that appeared unusual from a teacher’s study. Quickly promoted after his delivery of a comb, Paul found himself asked to write a report on Spier, the teacher determined to make his pupils question their world rather than soaking up received opinion. Paul diligently noted what seemed to be a friendship between Spier and Pheko, the school’s groundsman, horrified to see his report in the hands of Andre’s father the following Sunday. Played out against a backdrop of a febrile, post-Sharpeville South Africa, North Facing explores themes of awakening, culpability and atonement.

Peake vividly summons up 1960s’ white South Africa in the grips of fervent anti-communism, determined to go to any lengths to combat threats to its power. The present-day sections of his novel are narrated in the first person, distancing Paul from his younger self whose third-person narrative he occasionally interrupts. It’s an effective device, drawing you into the 1962 story line while signalling its far-reaching consequences. The depiction of colonial South Africa is neatly done: Paul’s determinedly English mother has brought her country with her complete with chintz-bedecked bungalow and Sunday roasts; the mutual fondness between the children and their parents’ servants contrasts with the racism absorbed by unquestioning young minds. Peake lightly sketches Paul’s sexual awakening –  a sudden, puzzling but fateful response – and his realisation of what he has been instrumental in bringing about is quietly delivered. It’s an engrossing, poignant coming-of-age novel whose revelation of the purpose of Paul’s journey brought me to tears.

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Shena Mackay

13 June 2017

Tony Peake’s compelling and haunting new novel makes the political personal. Here, the other country which is the past is Apartheid South Africa, recalled with aching hindsight by an Englishman who spent his childhood there. History is happening outside the privileged confines of a white boys’ boarding school – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of the ANC – within, the corruption of the wider society is played out in microcosm in the power struggles and cruelties of damaged little rich boys, until, with chilling inevitability, they lead to an almost inadvertent betrayal which has terrible consequences and resonances. 

North Facing is elegiac in its depiction of things half-understood, telling in its detail – an African comb becomes totemic in memory – and is a gracefully achieved work of art made more powerful by its quiet anger and understatement.

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