Book Review – Figurehead by Patrick Allington

Posted on January 10, 2010 by


Figurehead by Patrick Allington

Caution – Spoilers

Figurehead, by Patrick Allington is the story of two men with similar ideals, who each move in dramatically different directions when they apply their vision.

It asks the question, who are you if a man you saved goes on to slaughter thousands upon thousands of innocent people?

Ted Whittlemore (and he does like to peel it away and get to the bare bones of the situation as his name suggests) is a radical pro communist journalist in the late 60’s who helps to rescue Nhem Kiry, hoping this will help thrust Cambodia into the heavenly ideals of communism.

Of course, Nhem Kiry goes on to become ‘Pol Pots mouthpiece’ and one of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, an organisation that initiated horrendous acts of genocide performed upon the Cambodian citizens. As Ted watches his dream for the Cambodian people turn into their worst nightmare, his psyche twists itself into self-destructive knots.  He can’t separate himself and the man he rescued from certain death all those years ago.

The novel takes us through Nhem Kiry’s rise to power and along with it, the destruction of Ted Whittlemore from the inside out.

What is interesting about both of the main characters in this novel is the abstract belief in an ideal that allows them to excuse reality as it is presented to them. In Ted’s case, he ignores the foolishness of Prince Sihanouk, in preference for a belief that the prince genuinely loves his people and will use his power well.

Ted can’t accept the possibility of anything good coming out of the United States, and refuses to give up the luxury of seeing things as black and white when he knows very well those with the power to act have no such opportunity. He doggedly sticks to outdated ideals, refusing to notice that the world has transformed around him as he and his opinions become more and more irrelevant.

Nhem Kiry lives a life governed by strict physical routines and a refusal of personal indulgences which act as talisman reinforcing his life choices. He turns a blind eye to his leader’s decisions, even when he witnesses the deaths of several good men and their families who are close to him. He prizes loyalty over rationality and common sense. He is a statesman who delivers tired messages that repeat party lines that have long become useless and inappropriate.

Both men see their own persecution and judgement from the world around them as evidence of their superiority and both men have no ability to relate properly to the women in their lives. Both men completely miss the moment when the world moves on and their passions become completely futile. Zealot like they both continue to flog dead horses, willing their causes corpse to come to life again.

Patrick Allington takes us on a long journey starting in 1967 and ending in 1998. He uses fiction to tell a true story in an engaging, entertaining way speaking with great authority in the voice of Pol Pot, Henry Kissinger and other political figures at the time.

Figurehead is heavy with facts and details, but he manages to ease the reader’s burden using humour without judgement.  With great skill an endless array of dull political meetings are  entertaining and propel the reader forward in head shaking wonder. Allington  trips lightly over disturbing details, slipping them in occasionally to remind us this foolish chess game is actually costing thousands of lives.

By the end of the novel I was left with an overwhelming sense of the futility of  causes and how seriously we can blinker ourselves in the name of – what? Honour? Pride? Why do we stick to an idea that has passed its use by date in the hope that it will somehow, someday be proven to be brilliance after all.

My only criticism of Figurehead is that two-thirds of the way through I felt a little tedium leech in. I grew weary of the endless meetings and the ineffectual political banter. The message of the novel is painted with  a very light brush stroke and at the point where I started to get tired I would have liked just a wee bit of philosophy to lead me in my realisations to add a little depth. Perhaps some reflections; at the end when Ted’s granddaughter readers his undelivered letter to Nhem Kiry, it takes me by surprise that he is as affected as he is. I would have preferred to have that alluded to a little earlier.

Having said that, I couldn’t put the novel down, so it obviously didn’t put me off that much. This one gets a high recommendation from me.



Posted in: Review