The Power of One

The Power of One

R.I.P. Bryce Courtenay 23rd November 2012 - His storytelling has enthralled us for over two decades

Bryce Courtenay’s novel is a powerful story of a prodigy growing up on the eve of WW11. The Power of One, although partly based on Courtenay’s own childhood experiences, is an almost elegiac narrative of a boy’s growing up in the increasingly oppressive racial society that was South Africa at the time.

This is a very personal view – but to my mind – the book is one of the best I have ever read for sheer and utter pleasure – as it runs the reader through the whole gamut of emotions we are capable of.

It is still a book that I return to from time to time for a good read. Coupled with its sequel Tandia it is a magical story of the human spirit at its best.

Although fiction, it drills deep down into our emotions and portrays a hero that is at once mystical and also very human. Peekay represents the best in us – at least I like to think so. Peekay is an almost mythical representation of the hopes and desires for a country to be free of apartheid and the other pernicious elements of colonial racism.

Courtenay’s novel is skillfully written, beautifully plotted, rich in characterisation and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. His depiction of Peekay is a portrayal rich in meaning and possibility. I abhor boxing – yet its inclusion in the context of the novel is just right and an excellent device within the scope of the plot and its aims.

The Film of the book

I include this here – not because it was an excellent transition of the novel to the screen – it wasn’t – but because it has elements that can enrich your reading of the novel – if that doesn’t seem a contradiction.

The director (John G Avildsen) made the mistake of seeing it as a version of Rocky or The Karate Kid….. and so the boxing became too much like a “Rocky” style triumph – when it should have been more clearly depicted as the device it was in the book – the vehicle through which Peekay becomes seen as the incarnation of the mythic “Rain Maker”, a messianic liberator who is destined to unite all the African tribes. Ironically, this is what Nelson Mandela turned out to be!

What saves the film, and can add to your enjoyment of the book – are the performances by all the cast and the music.

The music, a mixture of soaring melodies and tribal songs, inspires on its own. The scenic beauty of the land of South Africa, from the grasslands to the waterfalls is breathtakingly portrayed on film and captured with true artistry.

The three young actors who portray Peekay as he grows are really exceptional and give you an image for your mind as you read the books. Joining them are Morgan Freeman and Armin Mueller Stahl who perfectly depict two of the principal mentors in Peekay’s life.

For the music and performances alone the film is worth seeing. Just don’t expect it to have the depth of the book – although it teasingly goes close at times.


This sequel continues Peekay’s story as he enters young adulthood and with his friends undertakes the defence of human rights on behalf of the African populace.

Again, the author’s considerable skills bring Peekay alive and into our hearts as we witness his journey. I won’t say anymore, except I defy anyone to read the conclusion without a tear coming to your eye.

Courtenay has been a reasonably prolific writer over the years, although I haven’t read all his books.

Well worth a read is the trilogy he wrote on colonial Australia – it is vividly depicted and very well written. Courtenay is a master storyteller and his characters are alive and his plots full of interest and imaginative.

The Potato Factory, The story starts in London in the early 1800s. Mary Abacus and Ikey Solomon start working together as business partners. It follows them as they are separately sent to Australia, a penal colony at the time.

Apparently based on Ikey Solomon, the so-called "Prince of Fences" and the basis of the Fagin character in Oliver Twist. Courtenay states in the book's introduction (The Potato Factory) that it is a historical novel based on extensive research.

The book's other main character, Mary Abacus goes from serving girl, to prostitute, to high-class madam, to prisoner transported to Australia, to successful businesswoman.

Tommo and Hawk , The novel follows on from The Potato Factory and follows Mary's sons.

Solomon’s Song completes the trilogy.

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