A Most Surprising Man by Mary Anne Fitzgerald

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This book is an expression of love. It was written to be a testament to love. It is a message to the reader that Leonie Matheson has an immutable love for her grandfather. This is captured within the covers, but overflows. It reveals itself within the prologue. A reader cannot do less than take note that love still exists in the world, even for a man no longer capable of meeting his world on his terms. This book is love’s revelation that it is a living emotion.

No expense has been spared in creating this tribute – the hard cover has, on the front, a background of rich green that says to the most blinkered eye ‘East Africa’ while the back cover reminds us that East Africa has a dry geography too, where elephants used to roam and wild animals were a danger at night. The lettering is clear and, although in at least three different fonts that in other circumstances might not sit well together, on this occasion fit snug as though they were meant to be each other’s enrichment. The blurb on the back cover is informative yet takes nothing away from the essence of the story.

I cannot endorse the decision to call the book A Most Surprising Man. It alerts the reader to be on the lookout for examples that make the term ‘surprising’ especially appropriate. I could find no such examples. Victor Marra Newland was an ‘enterprising’ man as evidenced in his beginning of a safari company with his friend Leslie Tarlton. His volunteering for service in the Boer War shows he was a ‘brave’ man. He was a ‘courageous’ man to remain so long in country ruled by ‘lions and elephants’ and ‘untrustworthy natives’. He was a man who lived much of his life in isolation and ‘conquered’ it.  He was swamped by the opportunities to turn ‘criminal’ but he cast temptation aside. His role as auctioneer shows he was a ‘gregarious’ individual and was hugely ‘popular’.

Many terms exist to describe this man and his actions. I felt ‘most surprising’ is a poor choice. ‘Surprising’ has a negative connotation also. It suggests that the man, as a boy, was not expected to amount to much. It is true that his school record produces no glimpses of the important roles that he undertook as an adult or that he would be the man to step up when circumstances required leadership. As a soldier in the Boer War there were larcenous opportunities aplenty, but his record is clear of money-based impropriety. Furthermore, the man who holds a gun holds power in his grasp. Marra was never part of the Morant-Hancock alliance that met the firing squad in 1902.

While the book is a panegyric to the exploits of Victor Marra Newland, it is also a painfully honest account. Marra would never leave a friend to die alone in agony. That is one aspect of the man’s well evidenced humanity. It was with shock, disgust and massive disappointment that I read that he had left a wounded animal to die alone beneath the fierce African sun. Such behaviour might have been accepted more readily in the years leading up to the Great War but it is nevertheless cruel and unacceptable. To own up to committing such an act redeems the man to some extent.

The book contains much living history, uncovers what our forefathers faced and overcame, and provides an insight into the raw humour the East African ‘bushies’ practised. I loved the book, I hated the title, and I am so pleased that Mary Anne Fitzgerald laboured long to produce an excellent account of a decade or more of our history.

A Most Surprising Man

(2020)

By Mary Anne Fitzgerald

Wakefield Press

ISBN: 978-1-74305-754-4

$45.00; 290 pp

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