William Boyd: An Ice-Cream War
While we tend to think of World War I as the great battles on the Western Front there was a war going on Africa, as the British fought the Germans, who had colonies in Africa at that time. Boyd’s novel tells of that war. The title is explained in a letter from one of the soldiers to his sister back home. It is far too hot for sustained fighting… we will all melt like ice-cream in the sun!. The novel tells the story of two brothers, Gabriel and Felix Cobb. Gabriel is sent out to Africa, where he is injured in an operation that went wrong in Tanga. Felix is declared unfit for service, nominally because of his poor eyesight, though his family, a very military one, feels that he has committed treachery by not fighting, while he, unlike his brother, is more interested in matters of the mind than in fighting. He goes to Oxford University but, during the summer vacation, has an affair with his sister-in-law, Charis (Gabriel’s wife). When Felix learns of his brother’s injury and capture by the Germans, Felix sets off to Africa to find him. The essential theme of the book is the fall of the old imperial order. It is Felix, the aesthete, that survives and not Gabriel, the warrior. The old imperial ways are shown both by the military actions in Africa but also by the Cobb family’s approach to war back in Kent. The British view is, in Boyd’s eyes, hopelessly out of date. For example, at Tanga, they give the Germans fair warning of the planned attack as it is the decent thing to do. The Germans, instead of withdrawing, send in reinforcement at great cost to the British. Boyd superbly tells this story of British incompetence and blundering but also does not neglect the brutalities of war.
First published 1982 by Hamish Hamilton