An Ice-Cream War: A Novel (Anglais) Broché – 5 octobre 1999
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--The New York Times Book Review
Booker Prize Finalist
"Boyd has more than fulfilled the bright promise of [his] first novel. . . . He is capable not only of some very funny satire but also of seriousness and compassion." --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
1914. In a hotel room in German East Africa, American farmer Walter Smith dreams of Theodore Roosevelt. As he sleeps, a railway passenger swats at flies, regretting her decision to return to the Dark Continent--and to her husband. On a faraway English riverbank, a jealous Felix Cobb watches his brother swim, and curses his sister-in-law-to-be. And in the background of the
world's daily chatter: rumors of an Anglo-German conflict, the likes of which no one has ever seen.
In An Ice-Cream War, William Boyd brilliantly evokes the private dramas of a generation upswept by the winds of war. After his German neighbor burns his crops--with an apology and a smile--Walter Smith takes up arms on behalf of Great Britain. And when Felix's brother marches off to defend British East Africa, he pursues, against his better judgment, a forbidden love affair. As the sons of the world match wits and weapons on a continent thousands of miles from home, desperation makes bedfellows of enemies and traitors of friends and family. By turns comic and quietly wise, An Ice-Cream War deftly renders lives capsized by violence, chance, and the irrepressible human capacity for love.
"Funny, assured, and cleanly, expansively told, a seriocomic romp. Boyd gives us studies of people caught in the side pockets of calamity and dramatizes their plights with humor, detail and grit." --Harper's
"Boyd has crafted a quiet, seamless prose in which story and characters flow effortlessly out of a fertile imagination. . . . The reader emerges deeply moved." --Newsday
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This book could be subtitled "When Terrible Things Happen to Essentially Good People". It tells the story of two brothers, Felix and Gabriel Cobb; Charis, Gabriel's wife; Walter Smith, an American plantation owner in British East Africa; Colonel Von Bishop, Walter's neighbor, nemesis, and colonel in the German army; and Liesl Von Bishop, the colonel's bored and lonely wife. The War brings these people together from the far corners of the Earth and forces them into an interaction with tragic consequences.
The characters are never short of involving. The plot clips along at a breathless pace and there are at least two or three set pieces that are staggering examples of narrative brilliance. One of the author's greatest triumphs here is his ability to capture the environment and pervading atmosphere of sub-Saharan Africa during the War. When he speaks of swarms of black flies hovering over and resting on a corpse baking in the desert sun, the reader really feels it. The author is equally successful at capturing the aristocratic tone and manner of an English country house as well as a seedy, bohemian nightclub in London.
There is hope at the end, but a dubious kind of hope. There is the possibility for renewal but not necessarily redemption.
Boyd's images will linger long after the reader has turned the final page, haunting and insistent.
Boyd's comedy of diplomacy in Africa "A Good Man in Africa" is also recommended.
A letter from Francis Harold Burgess, East African Railway Volunteer Force, to his sister, Mrs. Arthur Lamont
10 October 1914
. . . We are all safe here in the present awful turmoil. Of course when war was declared we might have been caught napping if the `squareheads' in German East Africa had weighed in at once.
I may as well give you the `orrid secret as by the time this reaches you the news will be stale, but we are going to take over German East Africa. Eight battalions are coming over from India besides artillery and will probably go in at Voi.
One cannot help smiling that while all the nations of Europe are flying at each other's throats we are quietly snaffling the colonies belonging to the common foe. One gets horribly bloodthirsty at these times and wishes that the whole German nation could be wiped out, but a few individuals saved, something after the Sodom and Gomorrah type. I do wish the British fleet could get in amongst the German fleet and put them all to `Davie Jones'.
As long as I remember there is another Burgess in the country (confound him). He is a Lieut in one of the Indian Regiments, 29th Punjabis I think. It is a nuisance as I am pestered with his letters as although they are addressed to Lieut Burgess they come to me. Military titles here at present are as common as leaves in autumn. Even the `donkey doctor' Stordy is a Lt Colonel and struts about in a staff uniform but is an awful sort all the same. Lt Col Stordy says that the war here will only last two months. It is far too hot for sustained fighting, he says, we will all melt like ice-cream in the sun!
Ever your affect. Brother,
PS. I forgot to let you know that I am quite well thank you. Also that you will find a very useful map of B.E.A. in the Annual Report of the Uganda Railway, a copy of which I left in the library.
(Mind you, Boyd being Boyd, Lt. Burgess, his letter and his sister--and Boyd's thanks to Mrs. Lamont for permission to publish it--may be fictitious. He has only himself to blame for our wariness.)
This is the second William Boyd novel I've read, the first being Brazzaville Beach. Although both novels involve Africa, they are quite different (Brazzaville Beach is a story about modern sub-Sahara Africa). Sadly for me, I had lofty expectations of An Ice-Cream War since I thought Brazzaville Beach was one of the best novels I've ever read. So I was in a sense disappointed with An Ice-Cream War even though it is a perfectly competent and interesting story.
Bottom line: historical fiction on par with the best works from Michener and Uris. However it doesn't quite reach the levels of literary excellence of Boyd's Brazzaville Beach.
Regarded as historical WWI fiction, per se, the book is not spectacular. Please read the wonderful Olivia Manning if you want that sort of reading experience. Boyd's modus operandi is quite different: He draws in the reader's sympathy for these three characters through their ever-changing sexual identities. He's a sort of much-abbreviated, very British Proust in this sense. Felix, originally typecast as your standard dandyish Oxford undergraduate with not very well-suppressed homo-erotic feelings for his brother Gabriel, becomes, after his affair with Gabriel's wife, Charis - a rather androgynous, Pre-Raphaelite figure - as efficient as soldier as one can become in the muddle that constitutes the British East Africa campaign. Charis herself, after a rather odd initiation into her sexual role during her brief honeymoon with Gabriel, and her pleasurable but guilt-ridden affair with Felix, becomes a tragic figure due to this confused sexual awakening. The most interesting of the three is Gabriel, who, first typecast as a manly, dashing and stoic British soldier, develops a dizzying schoolgirl infatuation with the very masculine nurse, Liesl, in a German POW hospital. So, rather than present us with static characters with static erotic proclivities, Boyd masterfully reworks them into the dizzyingly mutating and constantly evolving nature of their characters, of life and circumstance.
Of course - as Wheech-Browning pops in to remind us every so often - there is a very bloody war on and, by the end of the book, tragedies have befallen all the major players here described. Boyd may not be a master stylist, or one to bother much with the overuse of cliché, but he is an enrapturing storyteller whose characters come to life and breathe for the reader - a greater feat than many imagine.