Paris, 1958. An Algerian waiter at the famous restaurant La Tour d’Argent is convicted of the murder of two customers. As he is awaiting trial, his long-time friend Jerry Moloto helps an opportunistic and ambitious journalist build a case to defend him.
Through Jerry’s testimony the reader discovers that the waiter is actually Pitso Motaung, a mixed race South African drafted to fight in the First World War. He is also one of the few remaining survivors of the SS Mendi tragedy, which saw the formidable warship sink off the coast of the Isle of Wight, killing 646 people, including many black South African soldiers. So how did a brave soldier become a criminal and will Pitso’s name be cleared before it is too late?
Commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, Dancing the Death Drill is a timely novel about life and the many challenges it throws our way.
I received this as an eARC from Jacaranda Books, and was first drawn to it because of the stunning cover. I’d not read any Historical Fiction in a while, and this sounded particularly fascinating as I’d never heard of the SS Mendi before this and I really enjoyed reading Salt to the Sea last year about another navel disaster, that of the Wilhelm Gustloff which I had also not heard about before reading the book.
The novel starts off with Pitso serving customers in a restaurant when suddenly he stabs two of them to death and calmly waits to be arrested. A reporter tracks down a friend of his to learn his life story and from there we go right back to the Boar war, following first the story of his father and mother then Pitso right through from when he was a child until he enlists on the SS Mendi and the events that surrounded the sinking and the aftermath of that.
The book was very well written and it was clear that a lot of research had gone into it, and I was particularly pleased with the end where the author discussed his research and even included a suggested further reading section.
Pitso was an excellent character, I really loved reading about his life and the difficulties he faced due to his background. The rest of the characters were all very well written and I really enjoyed the use of language in the book – both the way it was written, and the inclusion of several languages that the characters spoke (the main two being Sesotho and Zulu). The mix of various South African languages really helped immerse you in the novel and I enjoyed seeing the interaction between the different cultures.
I was a huge fan of this book, and ended up staying up until almost 3am to finish it as I just couldn’t put it down. I would highly recommend it to everybody and it also works really well for a variety of challenges that are running – it works as a “Book about War” for Book Riot’s challenge, it’s a South African book for those doing Read Around the World challenges and could count for several squares on #DiversityBingo