While one might say with some accuracy that all serious fiction is about the nature of vision—in all senses of the word—some novels are more clearly so than others. An Ice-Cream War is such a novel, one that attempts to combine the forms of the historical and the satirical novels and, in so doing, achieves a generally well-structured and well-narrated whole. The events of the novel occur mainly in East Africa and Kent during World War I, with excursions to Oxford and Trouville, France, and involve a host of characters, some of whom are distinct individuals and some of whom are caricatured types, familiar to readers of Evelyn Waugh and E. M. Forster. At the center of this carefully crafted book is the theme of how people view themselves and their world and the effects of war, even an “ice-cream war,” on that vision.
Boyd opens the novel with a page-and-a-half dream in which Walter Smith, an American planter, “sees” Kermit Roosevelt kill his father, Teddy Roosevelt—a “vision” made more realistic by the booming salute of the guns from the German cruiser, Konigsberg, anchored in the harbor at Dar es Salaam, where Smith has come to purchase coffee seedlings. The sound of the salute jars Smith from his sleep, drawing him to the window of his hotel room. From that vantage, he observes the cruiser; also visible is the colony’s Schutztruppe, being inspected by their commander, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. In sum, the scene is emblematic of German pomp and pride, a vision of efficiency and polish that Smith admires both in its military embodiment and in the first-rate hotel and domestic service available in the German colonies. The quite natural duality of dream and real world in this scene serves well to establish the fundamental and classic conflict between appearance and reality.
The novel ends with Felix Cobb, a young Englishman who had come to Africa to search for his brother Gabriel, on board ship in the harbor at Mombasa, gazing back at an Africa from which Germany has been expelled and in which his brother lies buried. Cobb’s sight has been seriously damaged by a misdirected mortar round in the war, and as the harbor guns fire a salute from quayside for a batallion of Indian troops embarking for home, his vision disintegrates: “The view before him trembled, misted and then fragmented, as he had known it would. The quay, the ships, the sea, the leaning palms, glimmered fitfully between the swirling chasms of mica dust.” He looks up, thinking of the comfort to be afforded his recovering vision by the quietness of the voyage back to England, and sees “the small unfailing clouds dancing quite contentedly in the repercussing air.” Between these two scenes lie four-and-a-half years and a war that has changed not only the political map of Europe and Africa but also the lives of millions. The shattering of the old order is reflected exactly in the final image of Felix’s shattered vision and is one of Boyd’s themes, but to get to that theme, Boyd—as a good novelist must—narrates a tightly crafted story that involves a number of particular conflicts in the midst of these larger ones.
Walter Smith, the American planter, has journeyed from his farm in British East Africa, near the border with German East Africa, to Dar es Salaam to buy coffee seedlings. While there, he meets a neighbor, Erich Von Bishop, decked out in full military uniform, who has come to meet his wife, Liesl, returning from a year in Germany. The three of them, enjoying a degree of camaraderie, return home together. Smith, a short, heavy American in his early forties, is pictured as the frontier American type, hardworking and always ready to continue his efforts despite adversity. He is proud of his farm, grandiosely named “Smithville,” and especially of his “Decorticator,” a threshing machine for processing sisal, one of two main crops that Smith grows on his rough-hewn plantation. His efforts to begin growing coffee are typical of his attitude. When questioned by the British District Administrator, Wheech-Browning, an ebullient if misguided young man, Smith suggests that one cannot know whether coffee can be grown until one has tried it. Boyd paints Smith as one of the few generally admirable characters in the novel. Wheech-Browning, on the other hand, Boyd fashions as a near-farcical target for an attack on a species: the colonial functionary, thoughtless and fundamentally inept. As the novel develops, Wheech-Browning becomes a cheerful messenger of doom, with mishaps and death occurring whenever he is on the scene; Boyd mordantly describes Wheech-Browning as one who could sentence a man to death and then go “out for a game of lawn tennis with the police inspector without a qualm.”
The scene then shifts to Stackpole Manor in Kent, where Boyd introduces the Cobb family, representatives of the moderately wealthy upper-middle class, crochets firmly in place, about to be plunged into the Great War. At a marvelously drawn family dinner on the eve of the wedding of the eldest son, Gabriel Cobb, twenty-seven, to Charis Lavery, the momentous events of the summer—including the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo—form a conversational...
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