This bitter tale of a boy’s time at a boarding school in Zimbabwe just after independence reads as if the author were spitting out his words in an effort to exorcise the memories of his own time at such a school. Robert Jacklin starts at The Haven in 1973, having come from the UK with his parents because of his father’s new job. There are a few black Zimbabweans at the school and to begin with Robert befriends one of them, Nelson, but then falls under the malevolent spell of Ivan Hascott. Together with two other boys they begin a reign of terror initiated by Ivan, culminating in the actual killing of small black children from the local village and Nelson himself. In the background is Robert’s disintegrating home life with his mother drinking herself to death and his father deluding himself he has a better job than he actually has. Goaded on by a maverick teacher, Ivan plans to assassinate Robert Mugabe but Robert manages to foil this in a violent ending.
The only rounded human beings are Weekend, the telephone operator and father of Tuesday, one of the children half blinded by Ivan and his cronies, and Matilda the black housekeeper in the background at home. It is the very black and white portrayal of life at the school which makes this novel an unremittingly bleak read. The author has used the characters to show the disintegration of the dream that Mugabe would save Zimbabwe by binding black and white together. The seizure of Ivan’s parents’ farm clearly shows the savagery that still exists today but it is the nasty Ivan and his effect on so many boys’ lives that dominates the book, although the black Head Boy, Kasanka, is a bully in his own way. Indeed the whole school seems full of bullies and weak teachers.
‘What would you do if you had a loaded gun and Adolf Hitler stood before you?’ asks the maverick teacher. If Ivan had killed Mugabe, would the world be a better place? It is a good moral question and if this story had been more rounded in its telling, it would have had a stronger impact on the reader.