I thoroughly regret not reading anything written by William Boyd before this book. I feel as though I've deprived myself of something very good for a very long time. Of course, I have no idea if his other books are as enjoyable as this one. I know that his most popular is A Good Man in Africa and I will surely read it in the near future. Sorry for the sidebar before even getting into An Ice-Cream War, I just had to let you folks know that I've made a boo-boo.
This book is a visual, harrowing, somewhat satirical look at the First World War on its most ignored front: colonial East Africa. I can assure you, and maybe it's because my history teachers weren't great (they were--influences on my life,) that I had never even wondered about the colonies when it comes to WWI before now. When you think of The Great War, you think of France and Belgium, right? I'm sure it's not just me. There were also some pretty gruesome battles in German East Africa (now Tanzania) and British East Africa (Kenya.) The problem, though, was that the major intelligence of both sides were waging war with one another in Europe leaving this part of Africa in the hands of the B-Team (maybe even C-Team.)
The novel's primary focus is on the Cobb brothers, Felix and Gabriel: two almost polar opposites. Felix is at Oxford and has a bit of a superiority complex. Gabriel is in the military, stationed in India, at home in Kent for his wedding to Charis. Gabriel is a large man, all brawn, no brains according to Felix. War breaks out during Gabriel's honeymoon in France just as the awkwardness in his emotional and sexual relationship is subsiding. He is to report to British East Africa.
Felix, meanwhile, has no interest in the War and gets avoids it due to his poor eyesight, much to the chagrin of his father, a retired Major who is very visibly losing his mind.
Unfortunately for Gabriel, he is wounded and captured shortly after his arrival. Being the good soldier that he is, he decides to learn German and become a spy from inside the infirmary, prolonging his stay by re-infecting his wounds with dirt as they heal.
Back home in England, a distraught Felix and an even more distraught Charis begin a love affair: the captive Gabriel being the tie that binds them together. I always find it interesting when this kind of thing happens. Loss is something that can be only really remedied when you can share it with someone somehow. At least that's what I think.
The other arc in the novel involves a conflict between an American and a German who were once neighbours. Temple Smith is a prototypical capitalist: he has a sisal farm and he wants to branch out into coffee. With the help of his Decorticator (capital D,) he is on his way to making loads of money in British East Africa, just over the border.When the war breaks out, his once friendly neighbour, Erich von Bishop, takes over his farm and home with the promise that he will be able to reclaim it once the war is over. Of course, the most important thing to Smith is that Bishop or anyone else doesn't steal his Decorticator. From this, a personal vendetta is born.
I highly recommend this book. It is enthralling, somewhat gruesome and darkly funny. Boyd's characters are believable, sad and sometimes bumbling fools (you'll meet Wheech-Browning early in the novel and face palm as he pops up throughout--think stodgy British Inspector Clouseau.)
Really, really good.