Book Review: Men of Men by Wilbur Smith


Cover image: Fair use for review purposes


Wilbur Smith is one of my favorite authors, and it is always with a tingle of anticipated pleasure that I sit down to read one of his books. In the case of Men of Men, that anticipation was thwarted.

Men of Men meanders through over 700 pages. The length is not a problem, but the meandering is. In the course of that meandering, Smith totally loses the plot. In fact, he totally loses several plots.

The initial theme of the diamond, introduced at the very beginning, finds its climax two thirds of the way through the book. That, in my opinion, is where the book should have ended – although it would have needed a different title, because the (in my opinion totally irrational) explanation of the existing title does not come till nearly the end of the book. It would have been better for everything beyond the diamond climax to have been a separate book.

It is difficult to tell who is supposed to be the main protagonist. Initially it would appear to be Zouga Ballantyne, but by the end of the book he has faded into near oblivion. Likewise, his son Ralph has disappeared before the end of the book, whilst the younger son, Jordan, although an ever-present figure, is never sufficiently compelling to carry the weight of the story. The African, Bazo, is a strong character, but the story is never his. At the same time the most despicable character, Mungo St John, assumes a prominence that leaves the reader disappointed and disgusted. At a number of points the characters also act in a way that is totally out of character, leaving this reader shaking her head and thinking, No, she/he would not do that!

In the course of its meandering the story eddies off into numerous little sidewaters that have absolutely nothing to do with moving the story forward. A number of times I found myself thinking that the only purpose for the section I was reading was to add extra words to the final count. On the other hand, there are some scenes that beg to be expanded, yet are left hanging. For instance, at one point a character commits suicide. This is presented in one scene, and in the next scene the family is going on with life as if nothing had happened. Smith obviously has no idea of the profound and devastating ongoing effect of suicide upon those who remain.

Initially I thought that maybe this was one of Smith’s earliest books, which would at least give some explanation of its faults. But no, a check revealed that it was written in 1981. Smith began writing in 1965, so by the time he wrote Men of Men he had sixteen years and several novels worth of experience behind him.

The only redeeming features of this book were Smith’s usual superb descriptions and his meticulous research, but even they are not enough to outweigh the glaring disappointments. I am very glad that this was not the first Wilbur Smith book that I have read. If it had been, the chances are very high that I would never again have picked up a book with his name on the cover.

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