Bryce Courtenay’s novel The Power of One, first published in 1989, is approaching its 25th year in print. It is the story of a young boy in pre-World War II South Africa rising above a brutal childhood largely through the strength of his boxing.
Courtenay, who died in 2012, was born in South Africa and later moved to Australia where he wrote the novel, his first, at age 55. As a boy Courtenay also boxed, and in reading his biography it is clear that in no small way the book is colored by his own life experiences as a young man.
The novel’s protagonist, known simply as Peekay, is tormented as a child by his Dutch boarding school classmates for his English heritage. The Dutch Afrikaners and British fought a pair of particularly vicious wars in the late 19th and early 20th century known as the Boer Wars. The lingering ill-will from those is visited heavily upon Peekay while spending his earliest years at the boarding school.
He eventually escapes the school when he is sent to live with his grandfather in the prison town of Barberton. While traveling via railroad to Barberton, Peekay encounters Hoppie Groenewald, the first Afrikaner to treat him kindly. Hoppie is also a champion of the South African railroad boxing world and in the book’s most descriptively placed scene wins a railside boxing match under the South African night skies during an overnight layover.
Peekay decides then he is, and will be, a boxer and once in Barberton falls under the tutelage of Geel Piet, a black African who expertly teaches him the boxing game.
The backdrop of war, the nuances of its many well-developed characters, and the stellar boxing scenes carry the book. Unfortunately, like a fighter faltering in the late rounds, Courtenay’s plot begins to head hard to the canvas in the closing chapters of the novel. The final scene seems stolen from a superhero comic book and out of sync with the tenor of the rest of the novel.
Given the book’s close, any recommendation of it comes with an asterisk. Still, for all its other strengths, The Power of One remains a novel worthy of the rounds.