Virago, £14.99, 341pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

An Honourable Man, By Gillian Slovo

Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians announced that Gordon of Khartoum was not that eminent after all. Nearly a century later, Gillian Slovo's novel confirms the General's membership of the Great British Walking Disaster Brigade. As with her co-authored play Guantánamo and Ice Road, her novel about the siege of Leningrad, An Honourable Man is a fiction populated by real people caught up in historical events. Again we are in a siege, this time of Khartoum in the Sudan, threatened by the Dervish followers of the Mahdi, a mad, mystical leader.

Gordon was supposed to be organising an evacuation but instead was defending the fortress and prepared to shed the blood of the last white man (himself; there were no others) plus that of the starving local soldiers. Another real personage is WT Stead, the excitable journalist who was to go down with Titanic and who led an ill-advised campaign for the British government to risk sending a relief force to the beleaguered general.

This powerful story begins with the departure from Waterloo of a civilian doctor accompanying the ill-fated expeditionary force. He bids farewell to his fragile wife, who is rather more daunted by the prospect of being left alone in London than he is by that of facing enemy spears in the desert.

We see much of the action through his eyes as he attempts to patch up wounded and dying soldiers. Out-ranking the "other ranks", yet still a civilian, the doctor tries to do the honourable thing but finds his good intentions leading to the death of a close colleague.

Set against his perils are those of his wife, who faces danger from the laudanum in his surgery and her attempts to obtain fresh supplies in the London underworld. Gordon himself is in the greatest peril from a situation of his own making, magnificently portrayed as he strides around his rickety fortifications and contemplates the flood-plain of the White Nile across which he knows the dervishes will come whirling when the water level drops.

Lytton Strachey made much of Gordon's eccentricities; late in life the General spent a gap year looking for the site of the Garden of Eden and the actual spot where Noah's Ark hit dry land. Slovo is equally realistic but less mocking. We see the deluded General largely through the eyes of his one trusted companion, a boy whom he has rescued from the London slums. The lad finds himself in the desperate position of being the main link between the grown-up and reality.

Slovo is highly sympathetic to the poor bloody infantry (if that is the expression for soldiers mounted precariously on camels) who obediently risk and give their lives for a hopeless campaign.

She is harder on the officer class. She drops in quotes from Sir Henry Newbolt's tub-thumping poem urging public-school chaps to "play up! and play the game!" - highly ironic, when the military game is not worth the candle.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'