AN ICE CREAM WAR by William Boyd


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From the author of the richly comic, darkly satiric A Good Man in Africa: a more ambitious, ironic/tragic tale--with doomed love-triangles fatally criss-crossing in East Africa, site of World War I's most glaringly absurd warfare. In the English summer of 1914, stolid Gabriel Cobb--soldier-son of bellicose Major Cobb of Stackpole Manor--marries lovely Chaffs and honeymoons in France (an only semi-satisfactory deflowering); but when war comes in August, Gabriel sails off to fight the Germans in East Africa with the Palamcottah Light Infantry--a disappointing assignment that turns to grim farce when he finds himself with the wrong brigade, invading the wrong beach, fighting off attacks by bees, and parlaying with the enemy. (""Really, you know, this is a war. It's not some kind of sporting event."") Meanwhile, back home, Gabriel's effete, adoring younger brother Felix manages to avoid conscription (to his father's unhinged horror), attends Oxford, and--after demeaning attempts at sex with a chic deb and a prostitute--begins a heated affair with Gabriel's lonely wife Chaffs, who has now gotten word that Gabriel has been wounded and captured. But Chaffs is plagued by guilt, writes a confession-letter to Gabriel, and drowns herself in the Stackpole pond--after which Felix enlists and heads for East Africa, determined to rescue Gabriel, to atone (and to learn whether Gabriel received that letter). So Felix is soon trekking into German-occupied territory, enduring assorted ordeals. . . while prisoner Gabriel happens to be falling in love with his fleshy German nurse: Lisle Von Bishop, unappreciated wife of a half-English farmer (who has become the most pathetically gung-ho of local German militiamen). And the finale, then, is a series of disastrous good intentions (Lisle helps Gabriel to escape), grisly mishaps, and vengeful misunderstandings--as Felix, now transformed from dreamy pacifist to fearless warrior, goes after Von Bishop, whom he blames for Gabriel's jungle death. Admittedly, Boyd doesn't quite find the right balance and pace for his over-busy plotting here--which also includes a stray subplot about Von Bishop's American farmer-neighbor, who's uninterested in the war. . . until his beloved farm-equipment is confiscated by the Germans. Likewise, the tone seems imperfectly controlled--as it slides from light-tragic glimmers of Ford and Forster to more raucous echoes of Evelyn Waugh. But, though less consistent than A Good Man in Africa and rather too contrived in its weaving of familiar war-folly themes, this is literate, crisp, smoothly evocative work--serious entertainment in a sturdy, tangy British vein.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1983
Publisher: Morrow