This novel takes place in what is now Tanzania, and I know this because at several points I was Wikipediaing a lot of the details.
For example, William Boyd was born in Gold Coast. And I had no idea that was what is now Ghana.
So anyway, Tanzania was for a bit of time the bordering colonies of German East Africa and British East Africa, but those were more historically Zanzibar and Tanganyika. So here we are.
So this novel is about a group of different actors surrounding the East African theater of WWI. There’s an American farmer who joins the efforts because his farm is destroyed by his German neighbor and his prized decorticator was confiscated (I wikipediaed that too….it’s a giant machine that strips the bark and or husk from fibrous plants for harvesting, apparently) and so he joins up. And then there’s the Cobb brothers who both kind of join up because of their interactions with the fiance of one brother. There’s the German farmer’s wife, as well as several other characters.
It’s a strange, darkly funny book in which truly terrible things happen for completely meaningless reasons. This is a weird narrative in the war because I couldn’t imagine caring less about a cause, already ill-defined and argued as WWI, where you are fighting against someone who used to be your neighbor because of doings several countries off and barely have anything to do with you, and then you are fighting alongside hired soldiers and other colonial inhabitants. It’s about as distant and separated from logic as possible.
It’s funny in this book too. In one great set of passages Felix Cobb, of the Cobb brothers, has a batman from Scotland who speaks in absolute gibberish (I mean beyond anything remotely familiar in terms of brogue or dialect in other novels) and he learns to mostly make out the gist. Also, this is a novel that have a good driving push toward the end, and that was really satisfying.
I picked this book up because it was nominated for the Booker Prize (lost to Schindler’s Ark) and it had a good name and they had it at the library. And I think I will be thinking about for a few weeks. It could have been 1000 pages and still been riveting. I put it as a weird cross between JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur and Oliva Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy.