Inside every comic fat man there's a serious thin man trying to get out. William Boyd's 'A Good Man in Africa' may not have been the novel for the Eighties it was hailed as (in tone it was a novel of the Fifties), but its flabby, red-haired, heavily perspiring British diplomat, Morgan Leafy, was a memorably funny creation. His second novel, 'An Ice Cream War' (again rather old-fashioned, again compulsively readable), takes as its central figure the slim, nervous, dark-haired would-be aesthete Felix Cobb, who barely raises a smile.
Boyd's subject is the 1914–18 War, his venue the little-known East African front, where German-British hostilities follow a parochial, disorganised but violent course. Those caught up include Temple Smith, an American with a farm near Kilimanjaro; the German couple Erich and Liesl von Bishop; and Felix's brother, the simple, carthorse-like Gabriel, drafted out during his honeymoon. Back home Felix finds solace during his unhappy guilt-ridden career at Oxford through an affair with Gabriel's wife, Charis, but eventually he too finds himself journeying into the heart of darkness.
It's not that there aren't some comic moments: Felix's exasperation with his mad, blimpish father; minor characters like the mean Nigel Bathes and indecipherable Scotsman Gilzean; Temple Smith's botched schemes to get rich quick in the colonies. But Felix is the book's presiding spirit and he brings out a more sombre, reflective side of Boyd.
'An Ice Cream War' is a nice, clean read, almost Victorian in the way it introduces each character with a head-to-toe physical description. Its lack of modernist fizz evidently worries the publishers (and, I suspect, Boyd himself), whose blurb speaks of conventions being subverted and of assumptions challenged. No doubt this refers to the marginal shift away from realism in the novel's bleak finale, and to the point this reinforces about the First World War being a turning point in English life: bathing in ponds and romantic love during the summer of 1914 give way to death, betrayal and adultery. But this is hardly novel or subversive. Boyd's strengths should be accepted for what they are—old-fashioned ones, but no less admirable for that.
Blake Morrison, "Old Fashioned Virtues," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), September 12, 1982, p. 32.∗