Friday 4 May 2012

REVIEW: King Solomon's Mines, by H. Rider Haggard (5*)


by H. Rider Haggard (Penguin Popular Classics, 1994)

Well, here's a rave review I didn't expect to be writing!  In fact, I'm not even sure I'm going to make this into a 'real' review - how do you review a book that's been read by generations already and been discussed hundreds of times to boot?  I think if I have to attempt that I might never post ANYTHING about it, so I thought I'd go for a rambly collection of thoughts instead.  Better that nothing, right?!

** There may be teeny tiny SPOILERS ahead here - it's hard to throw together all my thoughts about the book without revealing any details!  But I'll try to keep them very mild and not reveal any major plot points and big moments, okay?  Read on! **

I borrowed this book off my sister's shelves, expecting a light, dated and slightly rubbish adventure story, something I could read fairly quickly, tick off my list, and stick back on the shelf without any fuss.  I am happy to report that I couldn't have been more wrong!  I LOVE it when this happens - when I'm not expecting much from a book and it turns out to be awesome.  Makes the pleasure that much more satisfying, don't you think?  Actually King Solomon's Mines completely blew me away, and by the end, to my surprise, it had even managed to topple Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child off the top spot as my favourite book of 2012 so far.

In a nutshell, this is a proper old-fashioned adventure yarn.  It is narrated by the now-iconic Allan Quatermain, an English hunter making his living shooting game in South Africa.  He is on a boat returning to his home in Durban when he meets Sir Henry Curtis and his friend, naval officer Captain John Good.  Sir Henry is attempting to find his brother, last seen heading out on a suicidal mission across the desert in search of King Solomon's legendary diamond mines.  He enlists Quatermain's (rather reluctant) help and the three set out for the mountains, aided by a crudely-drawn map left to Quatermain by the last fool to attempt the journey.

What follows is a real Indiana Jones story that had me completely absorbed from start to finish.  First the desert must be navigated, then there are mountains to cross, only for the exhausted trio to find themselves embroiled in a bitter tribal war on the other side.  It could have been so dull, but Quatermain's plentiful dry humour and beautiful flights of description proved irresistable.  The excitement and suspense is genuinely riveting - there are a couple of deliciously gruesome moments that sent me mentally diving behind my sofa cushion - and when I reached the last page I felt utterly bereft.  Having been so completely immersed in the trio's African exploits, I wasn't quite sure what I could read next that could POSSIBLY compare (always the sign of a great book!).

I think two things really made it for me: the characters and the big set-piece moments.  The characters are exquisite creations, each and every one of them.  Sir Henry, the great fair Viking with his deep integrity and ferocious strength as a warrior.  Captain Good, with his eye glass, impressive swearing abilities (never rendered here, by the way!) and determination to dress like a gentleman despite the harsh conditions.  Even foul old Gagool, the ancient and evil Kukuana witch doctress, was so brilliantly drawn that I felt a wave of revulsion every time she graced the page with her presence.

One thing that pleasantly surprised me was the respect Haggard shows towards other races - I had expected a more 'savages vs whites' mentality.  In some ways it is still very much of its time, of course - for example, the idea that it wouldn't be 'proper' for a black person and a white person to be together, and the implication that the local tribes are inferior in status and intelligence - but in others it seems quite progressive.  Quatermain and his companions show great affection and respect for the Kukuana tribespeople across the mountains, joining their civil war and becoming close friends with several of their leaders.  These leaders are portrayed as impressive, if brutal, warriors, and honest men.  The Kukuana language is wonderful too, 'translated' by Quatermain in all of its grand, sweeping and eloquent beauty.

The biggest thing I'll take away from the book, the element that will stick with me the most, is the incredible set-piece imagery, some of which wouldn't seem out of place in a Lord of the Rings film.  I think certain 'snapshots' from the book are forever imprinted on my memory, they're so unforgettable.  The great twin mountain peaks at sunrise.  A wounded bull elephant charging through the trees (there are scenes of elephant hunting in the book, by the way, but as with the outdated race issues it would be unfair to judge Haggard too harshly for it).  Key moments from the tribal war.  The moment when the trio first enter the Kukuana Place of Death (that was perhaps the most memorable scene of all for me).  I mean... wow.  I'm actually glad that no decent film adaptation of the book has ever been made, because now I'm not tempted to watch it.  It'd take a damn fine movie to match up to the pictures in my mind!  Perhaps I should write to Peter Jackson...

Notable Quotables:
  • "There is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it.  There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross... if love leads him and he holds his life in his hand counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or lose it as Heaven may order."
  • "On, on we went, till at last the east began to blush like the cheek of a girl.  Then there came faint rays of primrose light, that changed presently to gold bars, through which the dawn glided out across the desert.  The stars grew pale and paler still till at last they vanished; the golden moon waxed wan, and her mountain ridges stood out against her sickly face like the bones on the cheek of a dying man.  Then came spear upon spear of light flashing far away across the boundless wilderness, piercing and firing the veils of mist, till the desert was draped in a tremulous golden glow, and it was day." - Isn't that just gorgeous?
  • "My mind's eye singled out those who were sealed to slaughter, and there rushed in upon my heart a great sense of the mystery of human life, and an overwhelming sorrow at its futility and sadness...  Only the old moon would shine on serenely, the night wind would stir the grasses, and the wide earth would take its rest, even as it did ├Žons before we were, and will do ├Žons after we have been forgotten."
  • "Reader, you may have lain awake at night and thought the silence oppressive, but I say with confidence that you can have no idea what a vivid, tangible thing is perfect silence.  On the surface of the earth there is always some sound or motion, and though it may in itself be imperceptible, yet it deadens the sharp edge of absolute silence.  But here there was none."
  • "Truly wealth, which men spend their lives in acquiring, is a valueless thing at the last." - Wise words indeed!

Source: I borrowed this book from my sister - though I'll definitely be getting my own copy now I know how flippin' AWESOME it is!