Book of the Month – June

juneHISTORY VIEWED THROUGH THE PRISM OF ECCLESIASTICAL ROMANCE

A Book Review by Lindsay Barrett

TITLE; INFLUENCE OF A KING

AUTHOR: Titi Horsfall

PUBLISHER: Deep River Books, Oregon USA

Although this novel clearly belongs to the genre of popular romantic literature it endeavours to transcend its medium through the complexity of its historical setting. Set in two widely separated social and geographical zones it tells a story of undying love between two people of seemingly irreconcilable social antecedents. However the author inserts some far-fetched elements of ancestry and faith into the fictive mixture that gives it the air of a fantasy of wish-fulfillment rather than of attainable veracity. Imagine the presumption that the central protagonist is a black man of partly Jewish extraction who rose to the rank of a Vice-Admiral in the British Royal Navy in the 1940’s. This never happened to any real black person and would not have been possible given the depth of racial bigotry that existed in imperial society of the time. Titi Horsfall’s imaginative leap of faith in creating this character is adulterated by the fact that her angle of observation proceeds from the point of view of one who clearly holds the presumptions of the superiority of the morality of the imperial power in awe. While she portrays the corrupt desires of some officials as being aberrant betrayals of the administrative norm she contends that faith and genuine good intentions were the core motivations of the colonial elite, This is symbolised right from the start of the work as she creates an incident in which her protagonist Chad Eichenwald encounters King George VI before he ascends to the throne and observes that he is surprisingly modest for a royal.

The seat of British royalty Buckingham Palace is in fact the opening location of this tale as Chad attends the investiture of his grandfather, a Rostchild-like figure, as a baronet. While the palace scene sets the pace for the assumptions of aristocratic credibility of the background of the protagonist it also enhances the aura of fantasy and incredulity that stays with the characterisation of this particular player throughout the story. It is therefore interesting when the most surprising element of this work is introduced as a factor of the presumption of royal guidance; the work is revealed to be an instrument for the propagation of Christian evangelism and the much touted “influence of the king” emanates from the author’s assertion that King George VI was actually a born-again Christian. Once this element is introduced it reverberates with constant fervor throughout the book. In fact the ecclesiastical message becomes the leitmotif of the moral indoctrination that lies at the core of the tale and gives it a structural profile that is unusual as religious discipline becomes the main motif of the romance at the heart of the tale. This concern influences the eventual meeting of the aristocratic half caste with the unusually fair maiden in circumstances that can hardly be more far-fetched than those cooked up by the author. Imagine the future Vice-Admiral, as a young naval officer serving in World War II, being caught in a fisherman’s net just before a shark made a meal of him off the coast of the Niger Delta. This occurred as he was diving to retrieve a treasure needed by the British king from a merchant vessel that was sunk by a German submarine.

In the aftermath of this incredible adventure he spends two years as the marooned amnesiac guest of a coastal community in Nigeria where he meets Kanyam the missionary-trained daughter of the community head. Together they forge a friendship that is based on a mutual attachment to the Christian gospel. In preparing us for this deep devotional attachment as a credible element of the personalities of the main characters the author develops a family background for Chad that is steeped in incredibly challenging realities. He is the son of a Liverpool-reared Nigerian jockey whose parents were said to have been missionaries brought to the UK for training but who left him behind when they were returning home. Making the challenges that Chad must overcome even more incredible she relates that his father chose to relinquish his own name when he married the favourite daughter of the Jewish tycoon Eichenwald and took the Jewish name as his own. He had also converted to Judaism. Chad however is reported to have restored their Christian beliefs when he travelled to the USA to school and so when he is marooned on the Nigerian coast and meets Kanyam the gospel serves as the source of their common affinity. He is however also deeply attached to his duty and sworn allegiance to the King of Great Britain and when he regains his memory he turns down an offer of marriage to Kanyam that the chiefs of the community had conspired to initiate, in order to return to the UK and the ongoing war.

Kanyam on the other hand is strongly attached to her father Chief Adoki whose family is divided between his greedy relation Donga’s supporters and his own efforts to create a system of communal leadership based on the interests of the majority. While under the influence of the missionary sisters to whom he had handed her over in an effort to protect her from communal jealousy she had become deeply devoted to Christian values but at the same time she remained nostalgic for life in the village. When her father comes to carry her home because of fears that wartime life in the city might not be safe she proves to be an adept advisor. In handling this aspect of the story Ms. Horsfall introduces a device of literary historical licence that almost undermines the credibility of the tale when she has the colonial authorities begin oil exploration and exploitation in the community in the mid-1940s. Although the antics of those seeking to exploit oil resources illustrate administrative misconduct in the Niger Delta today any reasonably enlightened reader will know that the story is approximately a decade too early in this tale. Nevertheless once we overlook this error of timing and concentrate on the personal emotional details of the relationship between Chad and Kanyam first and later on the dilemmas arising out of the battle between her father and the colonial administrators the narrative gathers momentum. These form the basic strands of the romantic tale that the author strives to bring to a dramatic conclusion even while creating further obstacles to the relationship between the two main protagonists that provide a sense of destiny and excitement before the inevitable romantic denouement.

Titi Horsfall is without a doubt an accomplished and commited storyteller and some of her most far-fetched inventions have the ring of truth because they are carefully researched. In this particular work she has obviously read and digested relevant documentation about the period and some of the more dramatic historical events associated with it. The elements of imaginative characterisation and formulaic conventions that she handles with competence and obvious relish indicate that she is widely read herself. Influence of A King is certainly an unusual offering even though packaged as conventional popular literature. If only for its achievement in interpreting issues that echo regional concerns and reinforce recognisable values of the communities in the Niger Delta  today the Rainbow Book Club’s choice of it as recommended reading for May this year is certainly appropriate.