Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Book review : The Undesirables - Dave Boling

If I say the words "concentration camp", I've no doubt that, just like me, you'll instantly think of the Nazi death camps of World War II. The Undesirables deals with an earlier war though, and one that I was largely unfamiliar with - the Boer war that took place at the turn of the twentieth century between the British Empire and the Dutch settlers in South Africa. The Undesirables was the name given by the British to the wives and children of the Dutch rebels, rounded up and removed to mass concentration camps where they were kept in barbaric conditions, with very little food and no attempt to maintain even minimal standards of hygiene. (I was shocked by the photo of the almost skeletal little girl who died in one of the concentration camps on the Wikipedia entry for the Boer Wars.)

The story begins in the relatively idyllic and peaceful setting of the remote Venter Farm in Orange Free State. We are introduced to young teen Aletta Venter, who enjoys teasing her big brother Schalk, listening to Bina, the native help, singing her work songs, sharing special moments looking at the stars with her Oupa and helping her Moeder look after her younger siblings, Willem and Cece. This childhood innocence is brought to an abrupt end, however, when the men go off to fight and British soldiers roll up, burn down the house and slaughter all the livestock as they watch, threaten the women and children then round them up and take them to a concentration camp.

Seen through the still-childlike eyes of Lettie, we discover the horrors and hardships of life in the camp. Disease and malnutrition are rife - the author reveals the poignant statistic in the introduction that the Second Boer War killed more children in the concentration camps than soldiers in combat on both sides - but the stoic Boer women and children never complain and just "keep on keeping on", to borrow a phrase from a later war. There are some truly heart-rending moments, such as when Lettie and her family are overjoyed to get their hands on one potato to share between the whole family, but they still share it with the other occupants of their tent. Life in the camp brings out the best and worst in people and we can but marvel at the resilience of human beings in such atrocious conditions.

The book touches on the fates of many different sub-groups of residents - the British soldiers, some of whom don't agree with the policies used by the British Empire, the British nurses trying to staunch the rampage of death and suffering, the "tame Boers" who refuse to fight, the "Hand-Uppers" who surrender to the British for better living conditions in the camp and are treated with the utmost contempt by the rest of the residents, or even worse "the Joiners" who defect and start to fight for the other side. It's a fictional account but one that was thoroughly researched through reading the published letters and diaries of people who were really there, which just makes it even more poignant.

The characters are well-portrayed, particularly the British soldier Maples, who it is easy to hate, until we remember that he is only 19-years-old and has no desire to be there at all, having enlisted just to win the favour of his girl back home. He seems to embody the concept that in war, there are no real winners, only losers.

Despite the tragedy and suffering that it portrays, it is ultimately an uplifting tale of survival against all odds and provides a fascinating insight into this lesser-known and rather inglorious period of British history.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £12.99

  • Print Length: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (30 Jan 2014)
  • Language: English

Disclosure : I received an advanced reading copy of the book in order to write an honest review.

Other reviews you may be interested in :

Book review : Wolfsangel - Liza Perrat


  1. Thanks for the nice and thoughtful review, Cheryl! Very much appreciated!

    Dave Boling

    1. Thanks for calling by and leaving a comment :)


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