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An Ice-Cream War: A Novel Paperback – October 5, 1999

4.1 out of 5 stars 52 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

"Rich in character and incident, An Ice-Cream War fulfills the ambition of the historical novel at its best."
--"The New York Times Book Review
Booker Prize Finalist
"Boyd has more than fulfilled the bright promise of [his] first novel. . . . He is capable not only of some very funny satire but also of seriousness and compassion." --Michiko Kakutani, "The New York Times
1914. In a hotel room in German East Africa, American farmer Walter Smith dreams of Theodore Roosevelt. As he sleeps, a railway passenger swats at flies, regretting her decision to return to the Dark Continent--and to her husband. On a faraway English riverbank, a jealous Felix Cobb watches his brother swim, and curses his sister-in-law-to-be. And in the background of the
world's daily chatter: rumors of an Anglo-German conflict, the likes of which no one has ever seen.
In An Ice-Cream War, William Boyd brilliantly evokes the private dramas of a generation upswept by the winds of war. After his German neighbor burns his crops--with an apology and a smile--Walter Smith takes up arms on behalf of Great Britain. And when Felix's brother marches off to defend British East Africa, he pursues, against his better judgment, a forbidden love affair. As the sons of the world match wits and weapons on a continent thousands of miles from home, desperation makes bedfellows of enemies and traitors of friends and family. By turns comic and quietly wise, An Ice-Cream War deftly renders lives capsized by violence, chance, and the irrepressible human capacity for love.
"Funny, assured, and cleanly, expansively told, a seriocomic romp. Boyd gives us studies of people caught in the side pockets of calamity anddramatizes their plights with humor, detail and grit." --"Harper's"
"Boyd has crafted a quiet, seamless prose in which story and characters flow effortlessly out of a fertile imagination. . . . The reader emerges deeply moved." --"Newsday"

About the Author

William Boyd’s first novel, A Good Man in Africa, won a Whitbread Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award; his second, An Ice-Cream War, was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Brazzaville Beach won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; and The Blue Afternoon won the Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction. Boyd lives in London.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 408 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage International ed edition (October 5, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375705023
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375705021
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #545,075 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. F Malysiak on December 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
"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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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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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