British Empire Books

An Ice Cream War

AuthorWilliam Boyd
Originally published1982
Original publisherHamish Hamilton
This publisherPenguin
This Edition1983
ISBN No.0-1400-6571-7

This book is set in East Africa during the first world war. I'm afraid, despite its fascinating premise and scintillating location, it is a bit of a botched job. Apparently, this book won the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial prize for 1982 and was even nominated for the Booker prize. I have no idea why!

The story concerns the Imperial war in East Africa at the time that most Europeans were far more concerned with events in Europe. The characterisations seem to have an eye on a possible mini-series rather than for casting believable human beings that the reader can identify with and/or would wish to learn more about. There is a case to made that most Europeans in this era, and of the Imperial social class in particular, were cold individuals whom it would be difficult for late Twentieth Century readers to empathise with. However, the characters aren't just cold, they are jolly unpleasant people that I wouldn't want to meet any era. They are all sexually deprived, sado-masochists who hate each others guts. This doesn't make for enjoyable reading. All this could be forgiven if the book could convey some empathy of the life and times of East Africa in this era. Unfortunately, the historical content is at best vacuous and generally non-existant. There is almost no contextualisation beyond the inevitable love stories that had to impinge somewhere.

I'm afraid this book would teach the reader more about the literary style of the '80s than about East Africa during world war I. It's a real shame, the story of the Germans wandering around the bush for years could have been put to a much more intelligent use than William Boyd has managed.

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by Stephen Luscombe