3 out of 4 stars
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Sean Keniry, an Irish boy originally from County Clare, has moved to Swaziland with his mother Abbey, his sister Cheri, and Grand-père Jacques. Since his grandfather is a plantation leaseholder, ten-year-old Sean is free to roam the African bush with his Swazi blood brothers, Mandla (Tom) and Sambulo (Sam). Although he thinks he will be a bushman forever, his mother decides otherwise. While Tom and Sam continue their studies at the local school, Sean goes to Mount Felix, a Christian Brothers college in Pretoria, South Africa. The boarding school he grows into hating is his first experience with the apartheid system in force in South Africa at the time. Despite his determination to live an ordinary life, Sean gradually realizes he cannot ignore the harsh realities springing from racial segregation.
The Wish Dogtor by Sean Peter is a coming-of-age novel written from Sean’s first-person perspective. The story relies on the honest and relatable account of the protagonist’s childhood and adolescence spent in Swaziland and South Africa in the 1960s. I think the author does a great job of delivering an anti-racist message and raising people’s awareness of the innocent victims of apartheid and its long-term consequences. Moreover, he skillfully tackles many themes, such as freedom, racial discrimination, cultural diversity, respect for wildlife, family relations, and career options.
The novel impresses with its organization and balance. Each of the ten chapters focuses on different stages in the protagonist’s development. On the plus side, the first-person narrator is also the main character in the story. I particularly enjoyed this narrative strategy because a child’s innocent eyes capture the absurdity of misconceptions and segregation much better than an adult’s. Preoccupied with his personal life and affairs more than with the society he lives in, Sean somehow manages to preserve his naivety into adolescence and early maturity. He insists on living an ordinary life and behaving naturally in a world without any sense of normality. However, through irony and satire, he often ridicules people’s pretenses and exposes the flaws of a system that reduces meritocracy to the color of your skin.
Sean’s experiences draw a parallel between the simple African lifestyle and the discriminatory colonialist system. At the local convent, Sean prefers “the savages” to the group of arrogant white boys. By contrast with him, the teachers and students at the college in South Africa see African people as “second-class” citizens. Despite the more liberal atmosphere at the University of Witwatersrand, our protagonist still notices the omnipresent shadow of discrimination. By refusing to comply with the segregation rules, he is always the odd man out and acquires a series of nicknames: “Irish,” “Bushman,” “Mowgli,” or “Bush Yum-Yum.” As I kept reading more pages, I became more and more attached to this young boy who does not hesitate to show himself in a self-deprecating manner.
There are many things I loved about the novel. To name but a few, I mention the realistic descriptions of different settings, the perfect insertion of elements of cultural specificity, and the author’s dry sense of humor. On the one hand, Sean spends time with the Faulkner family and shares all the privileges of the white minority. On the other hand, his appointment as a junior vet at a welfare organization with access to the animals in the East Rand townships reveals the appalling conditions in these underdeveloped racially segregated urban areas exclusively inhabited by non-whites. Unlike the rest of the white community, Sean respects local customs and superstitions. For example, Nhlanhla Dlamini is a picturesque character, also known as the "Witch Doctor.” Endowed with anthropomorphic qualities by the locals, he providentially helps Sean at the proper time. Last but not least, the author’s sense of humor gives birth to endless hilarious scenes like the incident with Sister Dympna and Tom’s large baboon spider or the dancing competition and the funny couple Bum-Bum and Putty Feet.
What I liked least about the novel was the abruptness of the ending. I felt it was somehow cut off mid-scene and left unanswered questions. I hope the author thinks of a sequel. Nevertheless, I would have still given the novel the highest rating if it had not been for the number of editing errors. They are mainly typos and punctuation mistakes that will disappear with another round of proofreading and editing. For the time being, I am rating the novel 3 out of 4 stars. I recommend it to fans of coming-of-age novels interested in African history and the negative consequences of apartheid. I noticed the minimal use of non-offensive profanities, the non-graphic description of violence, and the absence of erotic scenes. As a result, the novel is suitable for both teenagers and grown-ups. I cannot wait to read the second book in the series.
The Wish Dogtor
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