An Ice Cream War by William Boyd is set in East Africa and England - with an occasional excursion to the Indian Sub-Continent - prior to and during the First World War. It is not a novel primarily about the war, nor does it focus on its African landscape, though the context and setting do significantly contribute throughout. An Ice Cream War is a novel about people and about how their interrelationships are disrupted or destroyed by a conflict that is not of their making. It’s also a novel about allegiance, promises broken and kept, and ultimately about loyalty.
The book concentrates on four men, two of them related by family, the other by proximity. The Cobb family has an English military pedigree, a status of which Major Cobb (retired) is unduly proud. Gabriel, the elder son, is set to follow his father’s example and he joins the war effort from the start. Felix, the younger, more effeminate perhaps, and still treated a child, is about to embark upon an Oxford degree. Anyway, he doesn’t have the physique of a fighter.
Gabriel is about to be married to Charis, pleasant enough young lady, who is looking forward to the duties of marriage. Felix thinks he is to be best man, but in the event he is passed over in favour of Gabriel’s forces friend, a more deserving type who was thought to be indisposed. After a moderately successful honeymoon in a France still at peace, Gabriel sets off to war, posted first to India and thence to East Africa. He takes part in the first sea landing into German territory in the country we now call Tanzania. All does not go to plan. It never could, because the plan, if it was ever finished, was certainly never written down. The operation does not succeed.
In British East Africa, but south of the railway towards Kilimanjaro, an American called Temple Smith is trying to farm an insufficient area of arid land. Previously he earned his living supporting big game hunters, but now he is married to an English woman, settled and raising crops of sisal. He dreams of coffee bushes. At this altitude? In this climate? Perhaps. Perhaps not, but he is going to try. He is that kind of bloke.
A neighbour, Von Bishop, is half English, half German, with his loyalty owed to the latter half. He is married to Liesl, who has not taken to tropical climes. Von Bishop and Temple Smith are in regular communication and cooperation until, that is, war is separates them onto opposing sides. Von Bishop is immediately recruited into the German Army and one of his first tasks is to commandeer Temple Smith’s farm, which the British won’t defend, because it’s on the wrong side of the tracks.
Felix Cobb, meanwhile, pursues several lines of life back in Britain. His absent, and as yet unaccounted for brother, leaves a dark, blank space in his wife’s existence, and Felix tries to help. But soon the brother’s possible suffering creates new priorities in Felix’s life. He joins up and is posted to East Africa, where he intends to find out what happened to Gabriel.
And so the novel progresses through the years of conflict, as it is fought across British, German and eventually Portuguese East Africa. Felix searches for his brother. Gabriel, wounded but alive, tries to do his bit for the war effort. Von Bishop does his own job for his own side and Temple Smith tries to reclaim his farm and livelihood.
William Boyd’s storytelling is faultless. His pace is perfect. We continue to encounter these four men at specific but pivotal junctures throughout the campaign. There is more posturing than fighting and, in the end, it may even be natural causes that have the final and most devastating word.
Read An Ice Cream War to live through these personal relationships, to feel the contradictions and sense the loyalty that they all try to pursue. They try to fulfil the demands placed upon them and those they insist on placing upon themselves. They all have to accept the consequences of their actions, which sometimes are intended, sometimes not. Do not read the novel as an African experience, because the locals, more often than not, are treated as chattel. But then that’s how the people who form the book’s focus used to think, and the book’s success is taking you, the reader, into their world as a participant.