There aren’t many advantages to being in lockdown, but one of them is that I have been able to participate in my sister’s German book club. The wonders of technology. And it looks like I am going to become a regular member, at least until the restrictions are lifted in Germany and the group can meet in person again (which, with the way things are going, will be sooner rather than later). I’m very grateful for their invitation to join the group, I’ve really missed not being in a book club and they are a great bunch to meet with. How long it will go on for, I don’t know. Fingers crossed a while.
As blog readers will know, I’ve been banging on about William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart ever since I read it. It’s one of my favourite books of the last 5 years, and was one of my top 10 books read in 2016. So I was excited to read another of his novels for book club, An Ice Cream War. There was a bit of trepidation too, for my love of Any Human Heart meant I had very high expectations, and had a slight air of pessimism that I was inevitably to be disappointed.
But happily, whilst the book doesn’t hit the dizzy heights of the aforementioned, it’s a really enjoyable read. Boyd has written a number of war novels throughout his career, this one being his first, about an aspect of WW1 I knew little about, the campaign in East Africa. The story tells the intertwining lives of five characters from across the spectrum and does so with great aplomb. I did feel there was a slight deus ex machina to get the character of Felix to Africa after his brother goes missing, but otherwise the events felt true to life, underpinned with some quite savage satire, and genuinely shocking in places.
You’d expect a war novel to contain lots of death, and this one is no exception, but even knowing this, a couple of the main character’s deaths in the book still hit hard. Felix’s brother Gabriel survived a horrific bayonet injury only to be beheaded after making his escape from a POW jail. And this death only really came about because of a miscommunication between soldiers and officer. It did highlight how survival in war was in many ways based purely on luck, and the fact that Gabriel was on the verge of escape, so close to the end of the war, was a desperate end.
His wife Charis also falls to a terrible fate. The early part of the novel charts their courting, marriage, first fumbling sexual forays, then Gabriel departs for the front line. Charis and Felix embark on a torrid affair, which results in her suicide in the duck pond of the country estate. There is a sickening foreboding hanging over their relationship, but Boyd skilfully plants the seed that she will leave the estate for good and set up a new life elsewhere, and when her body is discovered by Felix, it provides a sharp shock. The trauma of war had a huge impact on those left behind as well, perhaps forgotten, and the sorrow and despair so very real.
The main comedy of the book comes from the supporting cast. As is its wont when describing war, the British officers come across as officious, bumbling, stiff-upper lip types, particularly the inept Wheech-Browning. You get a sense of the chaos and confusion of the war effort, the poor communication, the over-the-top sense of duty, the snobby patriotism, shot through with satire rather than flat-out derision. There is an argument that such characters come across as cartoonish and one-dimensional. I’d have to agree, but I don’t think the narrative suffers from that. It’s all they need to be, and it provides some relief from the violence, tension and misery of the war scenes and their emotional effect.
It was nice to read one of Boyd’s early novels, and you can see his narrative strengths shin through. He writes about relationships brilliantly. Especially the infatuation and desire of the early days and the honeymoon period. There’s always a sadness, a longing beneath the surface, and an almost helplessness when faced by the object of said desire. I think what he captures so well is the fleeting nature of it, but how, through the power of the emotions felt, it can keep you awake years later with the force of the memory.
So another solid effort to add to Boyd’s canon. Enjoyed pretty much across the board, and leaves me wanting to hunt down more of his work.