An Ice-Cream War: A Novel
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60 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2000
While billed as a novel about the First World War, "An Ice Cream War" is really about the oftentimes tragic randomness of life and how we as humans really have very little control over our individual destinies.
This book could be subtitled "When Terrible Things Happen to Essentially Good People". It tells the story of two brothers, Felix and Gabriel Cobb; Charis, Gabriel's wife; Walter Smith, an American plantation owner in British East Africa; Colonel Von Bishop, Walter's neighbor, nemesis, and colonel in the German army; and Liesl Von Bishop, the colonel's bored and lonely wife. The War brings these people together from the far corners of the Earth and forces them into an interaction with tragic consequences.
The characters are never short of involving. The plot clips along at a breathless pace and there are at least two or three set pieces that are staggering examples of narrative brilliance. One of the author's greatest triumphs here is his ability to capture the environment and pervading atmosphere of sub-Saharan Africa during the War. When he speaks of swarms of black flies hovering over and resting on a corpse baking in the desert sun, the reader really feels it. The author is equally successful at capturing the aristocratic tone and manner of an English country house as well as a seedy, bohemian nightclub in London.
There is hope at the end, but a dubious kind of hope. There is the possibility for renewal but not necessarily redemption.
Boyd's images will linger long after the reader has turned the final page, haunting and insistent.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2000
"An Ice-Cream War" is the story of American, German, and British lives in Eastern Africa turned upside down by World War I. European and American settlers in Eastern Africa, once friendly neighbors, reluctantly turned to enemies. World War I battles in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the history of pre-WWI German colonization in Africa (more-or-less present day Rwanda, Burundi, and mainland Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo, and Namibia), are today mostly forgotten. The background of the novel is the amazing success of German lieutenant colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (not much portrayed in the story), who commanded Germany's tiny, undersupplied African force (mostly African soldiers). He inflicted embarrassing losses on British forces at Tanga, and tied down Allied forces that outnumbered his own by at least 10 to 1 for the duration of the war. Against this fascinating and little-known history, "An Ice-Cream War" is an engaging novel of war, love, and revenge.
Boyd's comedy of diplomacy in Africa "A Good Man in Africa" is also recommended.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2011
An odd omission, but somehow fully in character with this novel in particular and a major theme in Boyd's work in general. Boyd often inflicts torture on his characters by depriving them of a key piece of information. His American publishers did the same thing to his American readers, by omitting the letter which gave the novel its name. Here it is:

A letter from Francis Harold Burgess, East African Railway Volunteer Force, to his sister, Mrs. Arthur Lamont
Nairobi, B.E.A.
10 October 1914

Dear Cecily
. . . We are all safe here in the present awful turmoil. Of course when war was declared we might have been caught napping if the `squareheads' in German East Africa had weighed in at once.

I may as well give you the `orrid secret as by the time this reaches you the news will be stale, but we are going to take over German East Africa. Eight battalions are coming over from India besides artillery and will probably go in at Voi.

One cannot help smiling that while all the nations of Europe are flying at each other's throats we are quietly snaffling the colonies belonging to the common foe. One gets horribly bloodthirsty at these times and wishes that the whole German nation could be wiped out, but a few individuals saved, something after the Sodom and Gomorrah type. I do wish the British fleet could get in amongst the German fleet and put them all to `Davie Jones'.

As long as I remember there is another Burgess in the country (confound him). He is a Lieut in one of the Indian Regiments, 29th Punjabis I think. It is a nuisance as I am pestered with his letters as although they are addressed to Lieut Burgess they come to me. Military titles here at present are as common as leaves in autumn. Even the `donkey doctor' Stordy is a Lt Colonel and struts about in a staff uniform but is an awful sort all the same. Lt Col Stordy says that the war here will only last two months. It is far too hot for sustained fighting, he says, we will all melt like ice-cream in the sun!

Ever your affect. Brother,
F.H. Burgess

PS. I forgot to let you know that I am quite well thank you. Also that you will find a very useful map of B.E.A. in the Annual Report of the Uganda Railway, a copy of which I left in the library.

(Mind you, Boyd being Boyd, Lt. Burgess, his letter and his sister--and Boyd's thanks to Mrs. Lamont for permission to publish it--may be fictitious. He has only himself to blame for our wariness.)
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2001
An Ice-Cream War is a historical novel concerning the war front in the African colonies of Germany and Britain during WW I. As with most folks I suppose, I know relatively little of WW I ... and nothing of the battles fought in these colonies. William Boyd educates the reader of this forgotten slice of history very nicely by enveloping it in a very realistic story concerning reluctant soldiers, both German and British, and their families. The author strikes a successful balance of wry humour and pathos, with the end result being that indeed war, or at least this war, is horribly tragic and senseless.
This is the second William Boyd novel I've read, the first being Brazzaville Beach. Although both novels involve Africa, they are quite different (Brazzaville Beach is a story about modern sub-Sahara Africa). Sadly for me, I had lofty expectations of An Ice-Cream War since I thought Brazzaville Beach was one of the best novels I've ever read. So I was in a sense disappointed with An Ice-Cream War even though it is a perfectly competent and interesting story.
Bottom line: historical fiction on par with the best works from Michener and Uris. However it doesn't quite reach the levels of literary excellence of Boyd's Brazzaville Beach.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 29, 2010
I suppose most people, at some point in their lives, have been outside, say, an art gallery where art students, eager for extra dosh, will sketch your profile in a matter of minutes with amazing accuracy. This is, with words rather than with charcoal or ink, what William Boyd does to all his characters at the beginning of the book. They are stereotypes, of course, but stereotypes exist because, to some extent, they mirror reality. The characters whom Boyd leaves as they are, as two-dimensional "types" - the most notable being the hilariously nonchalant Wheech-Browning - serve as comic relief in what Harper's magazine is pleased to call the "seriocomic romp" aspect of the book. The ones Boyd chooses to develop and make three-dimensional: Felix, Gabriel, and Charis in particular are what make the novel worth the read.

Regarded as historical WWI fiction, per se, the book is not spectacular. Please read the wonderful Olivia Manning if you want that sort of reading experience. Boyd's modus operandi is quite different: He draws in the reader's sympathy for these three characters through their ever-changing sexual identities. He's a sort of much-abbreviated, very British Proust in this sense. Felix, originally typecast as your standard dandyish Oxford undergraduate with not very well-suppressed homo-erotic feelings for his brother Gabriel, becomes, after his affair with Gabriel's wife, Charis - a rather androgynous, Pre-Raphaelite figure - as efficient as soldier as one can become in the muddle that constitutes the British East Africa campaign. Charis herself, after a rather odd initiation into her sexual role during her brief honeymoon with Gabriel, and her pleasurable but guilt-ridden affair with Felix, becomes a tragic figure due to this confused sexual awakening. The most interesting of the three is Gabriel, who, first typecast as a manly, dashing and stoic British soldier, develops a dizzying schoolgirl infatuation with the very masculine nurse, Liesl, in a German POW hospital. So, rather than present us with static characters with static erotic proclivities, Boyd masterfully reworks them into the dizzyingly mutating and constantly evolving nature of their characters, of life and circumstance.

Of course - as Wheech-Browning pops in to remind us every so often - there is a very bloody war on and, by the end of the book, tragedies have befallen all the major players here described. Boyd may not be a master stylist, or one to bother much with the overuse of cliché, but he is an enrapturing storyteller whose characters come to life and breathe for the reader - a greater feat than many imagine.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
"An ice-cream war" was what a British soldier confidently predicted would be the extension of World War I to the colonial outposts of German and British East Africa. But the British badly bungled their invasion of German East Africa in November 1914, and the war in Africa, just as the war in Europe, ended up being far different than the glorious enterprise envisioned in the summer of 1914. In AN ICE-CREAM WAR, which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982, William Boyd tells the story of this satellite war, primarily through the experiences of two English brothers of relative privilege and affluence, Felix and Gabriel Cobb. Other principal characters are an American who has taken up farming in British East Africa, near the border with the German colony, and, from across the river, his German neighbor and his wife. The novel begins in June 1914, before the war erupts, and scenes shift back and forth between East Africa and England until, at the end, the principal characters have all come together in East Africa and the war is over, with some of them dead.

AN ICE-CREAM WAR is first-rate historical fiction, so much so that perhaps I should drop the vaguely limiting adjective "historical". In addition to the story itself, which has plenty of twists and turns, there are the deeper themes of the horrors and absurdities of war -- and, of life itself.

Example: "Gabriel thought maps should be banned. They gave the world an order and reasonableness which it didn't possess. * * * Nothing today had been remotely how he had imagined it would be; nothing in his education or training had prepared him for the utter randomness and total contingency of events. Here he was, strolling about the battlefield looking for his missing company like a mother searching for lost children in the park."

And the novel underscores that the human cost of war is not limited to the soldiers who are killed in battle or die behind the lines, from wounds, or disease, or accident. There also is the "collateral damage" to civilians, which is both physical and psychological, which occurs both at the front in Africa and back home in Kent, England.

William Boyd manages his rather sprawling story very ably, and his writing is excellent, always in service of his narrative and never calling attention to itself. My only criticism is that several of the characters are not wholly convincing to my mind. Still, this is a fine novel. I recently read (and reviewed) "Land of Marvels", by Barry Unsworth. There are certain superficial similarities between it and AN ICE-CREAM WAR: both are historical fiction, both begin in 1914, and the plots of both are driven by the collision between the expanding imperialism of Britain and Germany. Many Amazon reviewers have raved about "Land of Marvels". But AN ICE-CREAM WAR is much superior. It is not quite as good as "Restless", the only other novel by William Boyd that I have read, but both are popular fiction that might arguably be elevated to the status of literature. I will definitely read more of Boyd (God willing).
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2011
I felt worn after ripping through this wonderful satire in three days. Of the three books by Boyd that I previously have read (Brazzaville Beach, Good Man in Africa being the other two), this is the most memorable.

While the story line unfolds during WW I in the conflict between the British and German colonies in East Africa, like much war literature the examination of the socially pathological sheds light beyond the illness. The lies that we tell one another (especially those we love) to get by, the unintended consequences of our actions, the karma of our actions are intensified in the rarified atmosphere of war. It seems to me, that's what Boyd is writing about so deftly.

While it's Boyd's authorial voice that comes through, a debt is owed to Evelyn Waugh, whose Scoop came to mind. Ice Cream War also stands in contrast to Catch 22. The madness and darkness of war is portrayed in opposing writing styles. The difference is that Catch 22 sees war as a three-ring circus under the big tent of the military-industrial complex, where ICW is smaller in scope because it exclusively focuses on the personal relationships between the characters. The big war is a backdrop for the stage of this little war that touches the lives of those caught up in it.

Boyd shows great compassion for the characters, even as he reveals their faults - and their shortcomings are both common and significant. No one is perfect here, but all are worth of our compassion.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2007
An Ice Cream War, by William Boyd, is a wonderfully crafted novel. Boyd really soars as a writer, not only in his stylish and artful prose, but also in a story line that would, with many authors, be too much to write on without the inevitable choppiness that plot can create. Boyd is an author many, I here-to-for included, don't know. That should change for justice to be done for this gifted writer. An Ice Cream War, originally published some twenty four years ago, is a must read for both those who love rather old fashioned novels, with real and raw human emotion, and those who simply derive pleasure from the beauty of the written word. Boyd is going right up there with Norris, Stegner, Oates and Wharton (among others) that I think are absolute must reads. Treat yourself to some real art - read this novel.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2013
This book was a terrific read. Could not put it down. The interaction between the characters in the African campaign was amazing, it was not just about soldiers. This book was listed in the top 100 historical novels to read. Highly recommend. If you like this book, read Regeneration by Pat Barker. It also deals with WWI but at a mental hospital for soldiers with "she'll-shock" and other disorders.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
All too many wars are "sold" that way. Certainly some recent ones, as well as some that are now in the middle distance. We are currently commemorating the centennial of the "Great" one, as the First World War was once called. Norman Angell's The Great Illusion, first published in 1909 argued that a lengthy war in Europe was impossible due to the complex interlinking economic ties between the major countries. I finished William Boyd's excellent novel, and still did not realize why he had given it this title. Had to go to that very popular on-line encyclopedia to find the following: "The title is derived from a quote in a letter (included in British editions of the book but not the American ones) "Lt Col Stordy says that the war here will only last two months. It is far too hot for sustained fighting, he says, we will all melt like ice-cream in the sun!"' Ah, yet another version of: "we'll be in Berlin (or is it Paris?) before the leaves turn."

Regrettably I had never heard of William Boyd until a fellow Amazon reviewer placed a copy of this book in my hand. Boyd is a brilliant storyteller, who composes a canvas that has just the right number of character types. It is neatly balanced between the soldiers and the civilians, some at the home front, others in a supporting role in the fighting. The principal ones are all British and German, with one lone American. Supporting roles are filled by largely unnamed Africans and Indians, who get cut to pieces at times, and at others, do the cutting. Many of all nationalities die, not from a bullet or shell fragment, but from the diseases that are always present, and seem to attach themselves as part of the logistical train. And so many others get killed through accidents or "friendly fire."

The setting is East Africa, whose central portion was once fairly evenly divided between the British and the Germans, in countries now called Kenya and Tanzania. It commences with the sole American leading Theodore Roosevelt on a big-game hunt, and later deciding to try to farm there, selecting a farm that bordered German East. The war in East Africa was one of movement, and therefore a counterpoint to the trench warfare stalemate that characterized the European Western Front. But Boyd depicts in Africa the same folly, the same stupidity of the military leadership that occurred in Europe. The first Indian troops committed to the war land on the wrong beach. The leadership gives the German time to prepare the defenses. In another early battle the British leadership - an alcoholic general - "assumes" that certain hills will not be defended, and 600 South Africans die charging dug-in machine gun nests. The critical and deadly misunderstandings that occur in war are a constant thread in this novel.

Much of the novel is presented from the perspective of the Cobb family, who live in Kent, England. In particular, it is the story of two brothers, Gabriel, who is already a military professional based in India, and his younger brother, Felix, who was initially rejected by the military due to his eyesight. Felix, as a civilian during the first two years of the war, collects his share of white feathers from women, a custom whereby the woman is saying that you are a coward for not being in the military. The novel is a story of loves - and trysts - many of both dominated by significant fumbling. And there is also much duplicity and betrayals, as so often happens in love and war.

Boyd's novel unfolds in strict chronological fashion, with each chapter denoted by the date and location. I thought it was a subdued but brilliant touch to describe the novel's greatest tragedy on the civilian front on July 01, 1916, the same day that more than 20,000 British soldiers would "go over the top" on the Somme, and be mowed down by German machine guns. Boyd leaves that connection to the reader.

Boyd is a wonderful writer who has mastered both the essential elements of warfare as well as the human heart. 5-stars, plus.
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