Review: An Ice Cream War by William Boyd

Having only read Any Human Heart before, and loved it, I was surprised by the tone of An Ice Cream War, which takes a comic and vaguely satirical look at the First World War as waged on its African borders, while also making a poignant comment on the arbitrary and often devastating effect of larger political and societal changes.

The book follows three main characters – Walter Smith, who finds his farm near Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the first casualties of war, commandeered and burned by his apparently affable neighbour Erich von Bishop. Walter signs up with the British Army for revenge, and four years of total chaos ensue. Felix Cobb is an earnest Oxford student, champagne socialist and greatest of disappointments to his military father. When his strapping brother Gabriel abandons his honeymoon to sign up and is posted to Africa, Felix develops a strange and dangerous closeness with his sister-in-law. As for Gabriel –relieved of the curious and unfamiliar pressures of his new marriage, he finds himself similarly unsuited to the poorly-managed combat and soon becomes a prisoner of war, tended by none other than von Bishop’s buxom wife, Liesl, with whom he becomes obsessed in a way that he has never felt with his wife.

Crossed paths and missed connections seem to be the motif in this novel, both between individuals, whose relationships are never quite what they could have been, and in the war itself, which is shown as a farcical endeavour run by almost comically incompetent leaders. But it avoids Oh! What a Lovely War! territory with touching humane insights, whether that is Smith’s despair at losing his precious decorticator, or the devastating results of Felix’s quest to find his brother.

Sometimes felt a bit slow going, but I think that was in part due to the confused and frustrating nature of the war Boyd is writing about. I wasn’t nearly as interested in Walter as I was in Felix and Gabriel, and to an extent it seems like Boyd felt the same, as Walter fades out towards the latter half. And for the stunning moments that are also in this novel, it’s completely worth it.

Rating: 
In a tweet: War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing nothin’ nothin’

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