Books: How to play cricket under siege from your enemy

Ladysmith by Giles Foden Faber pounds 9.99

About 50 pages into this novel, a character is stuck for bedtime reading. Raiding his landlord's library, he finds the 1872 edition of Gibbon. This proves too weighty for the witching hour, and the character returns to the bookcase looking for an adventure story. After rejecting Kloof Yarns and In the Heart of the Storm, he settles instead on a volume entitled Illusion: A Romance of Modern Egypt. At first, he finds the writing clumsy and the characters artificial, but before long, he gets into the story and falls asleep feeling warmly towards the writer. By the time he awakes the following morning he has changed his mind again and decided the book is rubbish.

I have described this inconsequential scene at length because it is the most explicit example of the authorial anxiety that is never far from the surface in this second novel. Ladysmith is on one level an extremely private book. In his acknowledgements, Foden claims the novel was inspired by the letters of his great-grandfather. I am assuming this isn't a McEwanesque prank, and that the dedication at the front is genuine. At the same time, it is also an obvious attempt to expand on the success of Foden's first book, The Last King of Scotland. Both books seem squarely aimed at middle England, in particular those readers who have grown tired of waiting for Louis de Bernieres to pen another novel. This audience should especially enjoy the scene where the besieged inhabitants of Ladysmith continue a game of cricket while under enemy bombardment.

But Foden is a clever man, with greater aspirations. And it is the tension between pleasing his audience and writing something worthwhile that gives this book its unusual energy. The narrative deliberately lacks a centre, and for those readers not delighted by all the bombing and jollying along, it is hard to find an initial point of purchase. The book's blurb suggests we should take Bella Kiernan, the landlord's eldest daughter, as our central protagonist. But her romance with Trooper Tom Barnes seems of little importance, mainly because Foden depicts it so dispassionately. This, for example, is how she sees her first sexual experience:

"The fascination was in the pure mechanism of it; she felt like an engineer, one surprised by some chance discovery in the field of iron bridge building, or steam. She was even more surprised when Tom released a sharper breath than all the other ones, kicked out his legs, and a small, wet frog landed on her bare arm."

It's an arresting, if a little odd, description, but it hardly sets up this romance as something to shed tears over. Later, this too is revealed as a deliberate part of Foden's technique, with betrayals and suicides mocking any trust we have placed in these characters.

Another distancing device is the proliferation of writers cluttering the canvas, with so many characters bustling for the right to tell their stories that by the fourth section the book is entirely given over to these voices, with 10 of them (including Churchill and Gandhi) delivering "monologues of the dead". This title also appears earlier in the novel as the name of a book written by a precocious journalist in which a series of classical figures tell their story in modern speech. The first classical figure mentioned, Troilus, is one of many indications that Foden expects us to twin Ladysmith with Troy.

Ladysmith is a harsh read, and only really satisfying in seeing Foden execute a book of complex, intricate design. There is no easy satisfaction in the depicted violence, and almost every character present behaves in a grubby, depressing manner. While the siege and the sense of surrounding death allow Foden to create scenes of heightened emotion, these tend to be of frustration and deprivation rather than any thing more soul-stirring. It will be interesting to see if Foden's audience is prepared to follow him into this final vortex of dissatisfaction.

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