Ever get to the end of a book and contemplate flipping back to the first page and starting all over again? This is a book whose world I just want to continue living in but, like the ending of a book, is a world that just doesn’t exist anymore. So much of the book, though it deals with people trying to start a new frontier life in Africa, is really about the ending of things, specifically the end of old Europe with the onset of World War 1.
Elspeth, in the last chapter, writes about how she realized, quite suddenly and with some fright, how strangely interconnected all things are in life. She blames herself for the death of Kate, not because of any direct fault of her own, but the indirect responsibility she had in the wounding of a buffalo. All of a sudden the rational world she felt so sure of was gone and now replaced with uncertainty. One could also quite easily see how people might then turn to superstition and folk magic to explain their place in the universe. Charms, sacrifices, ceremonies, all the ways of life for the native Africans don’t then seem so strange when we look at it through the lens of our own uncertainty in the scheme of the universe.
But this one death and this one series of events is, all the while, back-dropped by the war in Europe. Events there of a much larger scale were colliding and would claim the lives of millions of people who were caught up in events they could not foresee or control. Ian being the earliest example of a victim to circumstance.
The whole book is filled with the parallels of their lives and that of WW1: the irrigation trenches being filled with water mirror the trenches of the un-moving fronts, the tribal warfare parallels the conflict between nation states. In some ways the book is as much about what happened to the whole world at the beginning of the 20th century as it is about one young girls’ experience growing up in Africa with her pioneering and liberal thinking parents.
Elspeth makes a strong case for how the world should behave. She always details the solutions that people come up with be it how best to grow coffee in Africa, deal with tribal politics, or deal with some unusual neighbors – she is always looking for a way to make things work. And it’s no wonder because much of the world was totally breaking down.
But she never becomes sentimental about her experiences. Yes it is a very romantic setting and stunningly beautiful, but Elspeth is a realist who leans towards cautious optimism. The characters in the book earn all their emotions, and there is never any melodrama or silliness here. And a lot of how she makes this work is by seeing the world through such a young persons eyes. She only ever gets to see and hear snippets of what’s going on around her so she, like us, have to piece so much together.
This books great strength is that it takes us to that time and place, makes us empathize with this little girl and gets us to see the world for what it could be without ever cheating us emotionally. This is a brilliant story; one of the greatest books I have ever read. In fact, I place this book right alongside Sergey Aksakov’s “A Family Chronicle” as one of the finest pieces of writing ever published.
I absolutely adore this novel like nothing else I have ever read.