Occasionally, when you review books regularly, there comes a time when you stumble across a gem that is almost entirely unexpected. Such is the case with David Farrell’s The Chameleon. Filled with luxurious prose that rivals some of the modern classics, Farrell constructs a visceral world for the reader to immerse themselves. It’s a world that is foreign to most kiwis, but is so well crafted that it really is an experience in and of itself.
Farrell tells the story of Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe - centred on the young male protagonist of Rorke Wilde. It chronicles the events of his life growing up in the pre-independence. It is a challenging time for the country. Split apart by the apartheid and witness to racial descrimination consistently, Rorke befriends one of the more unlikely of companions, Themba - the family’s worker.
One can’t help but think of the work of Rudyard Kipling in the prose. It is a lyrical exploration of South Africa and Rhodesia as Rorke navigates the world of AIDS, squatter camps, prejudice, poverty and greed. Hardly the topics of such linguistic dexterity, but Farrell seems to have the Midas touch with the subject matter.
No doubt there are many books similar in premise to the atrocities of apartheid and life in Southern Africa during this time. Kipling of course was not a native but wrote with the depth of love of one who was an ushered in an era pioneering the likes of Courtenay, Paton, Fugard and Coetzee.
The tropes of the notorious English boarding school discipline, and the exotic explanations of the beauty found in the African setting shine through, but with new life as Farrell embeds the images into the narrative so seamlessly.
As a true Bildungsroman plot, the phase of life for young Rorke gives the reader the slow drip of a life lived in and amongst such harsh conditions of those rough years of the 1970s in Rhodesia.
Overall, the novel brims with wonderfully rich prose and descriptions that employ Farrell’s significant array of literary techniques with skill. This piece is headed for awards, without question. It’s a highly recommended read of the season. Its sadness is immense and raw - yes hauntingly beautiful. I loved it.
Reviewer: Chris Reed