I enjoy posting the occasional book review – if only to keep track of my reading for my future self – and I particularly enjoy reviewing Africa-themed books, due to our family’s 3-year stint in South Africa. Here I give you reviews of three such books in one go – one set in present-day South Africa with flashbacks to the apartheid era, one in pre-World War I Kenya, and one in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) from World War I all the way to independence in the 1960s.
You might not believe this, but it only recently occurred to me that the book I wrote and published myself and which is set in present-day Tanzania belongs on the Africa bookshelf as well.
Therefore, I’d like to start out with the free book I promised: From Tuesday, Nov 25, 2014, to Saturday, Nov 29, 2014, the Kindle version of Kilimanjaro Diaries will be available as a free download from Amazon. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t miss out. Most reviewers agree that it is a good read for armchair travelers who never plan to go on such a crazy adventure, as well as for those planning their own Kili trek. And those who’ve already got one under their belts seem to relish the incredible memories it brings flooding back.
And now for the reviews of the three Africa books:
1. Absolution: A Novel by Patrick Flanery
This is a book about South Africa, both present and past, interweaving the story of what might have happened to Laura, a young South African anti-apartheid activist 20 years ago, with the story of her mother, Clare, as she remembers the past. Clare is a well-known and aging novelist, who I think is drawn to resemble Nadine Gordimer. She has almost completely withdrawn from public life and battles with her past and how she might have been complicit in certain events. She has suffered not only the unexplained disappearance of Laura but also the loss of her own sister who was brutally murdered together with her husband. Sam is a young biographer whose task is to write Clare’s life story, but it turns out his own past is linked to Clare’s, and neither is sure of the other’s motives during their repeated interviews. A good read about apartheid South Africa and the struggles of coming to terms with it, although in my opinion it started out stronger than it ended.
2. The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood by Elspeth Huxley
This one is set in early 20th Century Kenya, and it reminded me of Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, or even Out of Africa. Eslpeth Huxley retells her childhood growing up in a family of English settlers, who, new to Africa, rather naively purchased some land unseen and nevertheless somehow make a go of it. As an only child she is often left to her own devices and makes friends with people of all ages and cultures – the Kikuyu, the Maasai, and the few settlers around them, including a grumpy old Boer. I loved this book. I loved how the characters come alive through the observations of a young girl and how this allows us to observe the colonial lifestyle of those times through they eyes of both blacks and whites. And I loved the brief appearance of a doomed romance, almost so fleeting to be missed entirely.
3. The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and his Dream by Christina Lamb
This starts out at a similar time as the previous book, right before World War I, but it is set in a remote area – even by today’s standards – of Northern Rhodesia. While the main subject of the book is a house by name of Shiwa Ngandu, built, it is said, on a spot where Livingstone once rested, the story is really about Stewart Gore-Browne, an English gentleman in the truest sense of the word, who sets his sights on settling in the middle of Africa after chancing upon a spot he fell in love with on first sight. Africa House is the story of his life, retold beautifully with the help of numerous diary entries and letters preserved in his estate. Even though he never quite succeeded in making his farming enterprise profitable, he contributed immensely to the local people he supported and to the country that would gain independence in 1964 to become Zambia. He was in many ways ahead of his time with his vision for Africa, and deserves to be remembered as a great man.