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The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War [Paperback]

Aidan Hartley
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
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Book Description

21 Jun 2004

A deeply affecting memoir of a childhood in Africa and the continent's horrendous wars, which Hartley witnessed at first hand as a journalist in the 1990s. Shortlisted for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, this is a masterpiece of autobiographical journalism.

Aidan Hartley, a foreign correspondent, burned-out from the horror of covering the terrifying micro wars of the 1990s, from Rwanda to Bosnia, seeks solace and solitude in the remote mountains and deserts of southern Arabia and the Yemen, following his father’s death. While there, he finds himself on the trail of the tragic story of an old friend of his father’s, who fell in love and was murdered in southern Arabia fifty years ago. As the terrible events of the past unfold, Hartley finds his own kind of deliverance.

‘The Zanzibar Chest’ is a powerful story about a man witnessing and confronting extreme violence and being broken down by it, and of a son trying to come to terms with the death of a father whom he also saw as his best friend. It charts not only a love affair between two people, but also the British love affair with Arabia and the vast emptinesses of the desert, which become a fitting metaphor for the emotional and spiritual condition in which Hartley finds himself.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (21 Jun 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0006531210
  • ISBN-13: 978-0006531210
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 3 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 195,081 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


‘A powerful blend of family history and war correspondent’s memoir…searing, deeply instructive.’ Anthony Daniels, Sunday Telegraph

‘A truly impressive and haunting book, an impassioned and often beautifully written account of one man’s journey to the heart of darkness, and his slow, painful voyage back.’ Harry Ritchie, Daily Mail

‘Underpinning the grisly details of wars in Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burundi that Hartley experienced first-hand and at no small emotional cost to himself, is a touching story of his childhood in colonial Africa.’ Iain Finlayson, The Times

‘Wonderful and everywhere remarkable…Hartley writes with love and an astonishing zest.’ Allan Massie, Daily Telegraph

‘“The Zanzibar Chest” is a necessary book…you will struggle to find a more authentic, urgent or brilliant account of the underbelly of contemporary Africa…this book seems destined to become a classic.’ Christopher Ross, Sunday Express

A masterpiece. This is a hugely ambitious book.’ Matthew Leeming, Spectator

‘No other African correspondent has been so successful in blending both hard reporting and laddish on-the-road antics within a personal and lyrical framework. Hartley evokes the excitement and pathos of the modern continent…he is perhaps the best mzungu writing about the real Africa today.’ Andrew Lycett, Sunday Times

‘Hartley always writes beautifully…gripping and intensely moving.’ James Astill, Guardian

From the Publisher

Aidan Hartley is a brilliant young writer in the style of award-winners Dalrymple, Maclean and Marsden.

* Shortlisted for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction.

* This book is a spiritual memoir, a fascinating travel journal and a work of riveting history - a non fiction The English Patient.

* Includes an informative and fascinating PS section with an author profile and essay by Hartley's fellow journalist in Africa, Johnathan Clayton. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exceptional story 11 Sep 2003
The title of Aidan Hartley's book - the Zanzibar Chest - is an arresting one, but it has actually little to do with the contents of the book itself. We can read fragments of the diaries found in the camphor chest belonging to his father - written by a Peter Christmas(!) Davey, his friend - who had spent his early years in Arabia in the '30s and, speaking arabic, was employed as a political officer for the British government. In this role he was expected to broker peace between the feuding tribes so some sort of development could begin. Davey fell in love with a local woman, around which is woven a beautifully described and romantic story, with vivid descriptions of the Yemen of the period, its architecture, and its people. At the same time, and this really is the principal subject of the book, we read of the author's own experiences in Africa, from the time he was born there, his first vague recollections, and the experiences of his own parents during their early lives about which the author describes vividly the results of the "winds of change" blowing through Africa at the time. However,it's as if the author is too modest to say "this is what I have done with my life" and has found an excuse to write his memoirs - despite his still being only 35 - and to use the story of his father's friend as a leitmotif for writing the book. The story that is really gripping - until the last page - is of Aidan Hartley's own experiences - and derring-do - in what have been the most dangerous places on earth, as a "stringer" for Reuters, working with them in places from Bosnia to Rwanda, from Ethiopia to the Sudan, from Somalia to Burundi. Read more ›
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding, simply outstanding... 28 Nov 2003
As an NGO worker based in Nairobi, ‘The Zanzibar Chest’ was a must read for me. However Hartley has not just rattled off the 1990's well documented ‘New World Order’ war stories. He has used the backdrop of his own life as a Nairobi based Reuter’s hack to delve into not just his own family history but also that of long-term family friend Peter Davey, a British Colonial Officer based in Aden in the 30's with the seemingly impossible mandate of conflict resolution long before the term was invented.
Of the three stories, his own, as a sometimes brutally honest and frequently hilarious account of his journalistic work is the most interesting and it appears the subject matter he is most comfortable with. However the concurrent Davey story, and the author’s seeming need to reconcile himself with his vastly elevated father-figure, whose affirmation appears still being sought from the pages of this memoir long after the man's death, definitely make this a more interesting read.
Aside from the above, Hartley, like many others who witnessed so much carnage through the 90’s, appears still haunted by the horror. This is not shied away from, rather used as a stick to beat the reader over the head in its extraordinary descriptiveness. From the beer, prostitute and drug soaked nightlife of Nairobi’s underbelly, to the shocking descriptions of some of the cruellest acts ever committed on this planet, to the gentle stories of love and families trying to survive each other, Aidan Hartley takes the reader with him.
This is a sometimes complex story that twists and turns, hauls you in then spits you back out again, but always engages you as it makes its way towards its conclusion, and it seems, some well earned peace for its author.
Its fantastic.... buy it!
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shockingly honest--a dead pan delivery! 23 Nov 2004
I would absolutely recommend this startling book to ANYBODY for at least two reasons:
First, Hartley's account of Africa-its beauties and its horrors-is the most candid, fair and honest I've ever read. As one who reads a lot on Africa and has traveled there many times, I am often sickened by the spin and slant that many authors give their books. They are anti-colonial, anti-American, anti-globalization or anti-something else. They use Africa as a medium to push thier own agendas. But Hartley's account displays neither the pride nor the prejudice of his peers. He is frank, even blunt-both about what he sees and his own response to it. He puts his story out there, for better or worse, willing to accept any verdict.
Second, the experiences he relates in this book are powerful, eye-opening and moving. I reached a point about half way through the book where I couldn't put it down. I was absolutely horrified, but I couldn't stop reading. I felt sick, stunned, outraged and energized. I was deeply disturbed by his accounts of events I thought I already knew well. Tears sprang to my eyes often and I choked back sobs more than once. And yet I turned the last page with a deeper love and appreciation for Africa and its people, as well as a firmer resolve to do my part to help this troubled land.
Read this book. If you can't afford to buy it, borrow it or check it out from the library. A few here have sited weaknesses in The Zanzibar Chest. Fair enough, but this book's strengths so far outweigh any weaknesses that it's no contest. Read it! And thank you Aidan Hartley!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars worth a read
Enjoyed the intertwining of family history and personal experiences in central Africa. Fast pace but also the author shows professional detachment from what he saw - as he says,... Read more
Published 1 month ago by S. Heptonstall
4.0 out of 5 stars Really Entertaining
Really entertaining and interresting memoir of the author's experiences living and working in Africa. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Nico
5.0 out of 5 stars A pure classic
Classic, absolutely classic memoir of a very fulfilled life. Part of the narrative was as good as the 'Heart of Darkness'. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
A hard book to read but completely absorbing. It spins between his, his Father's and his Father's friends life in post colonial and colonial Africa and the Middle East. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Mango
5.0 out of 5 stars Possibly my favourite book of all time
This is a book written by a journalist going through a particularly difficult time in his life, so he starts to write about his life to try to make sense of it. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Sandy Sharp
5.0 out of 5 stars When Journalism becomes harrowing.
Perhaps one of the finest documents of a life tied to modern Africa. There is probably a misconception of those who moved to Africa from Europe; colonialism is not a word used... Read more
Published on 30 Dec 2011 by pagghtm
5.0 out of 5 stars A chest fullof stories
Wow in this wonderful book Aidan Hartley interspaces his own life story with that of one of his father's friends who died before Aidan was born . Read more
Published on 27 Oct 2011 by A. Browne
5.0 out of 5 stars zanzibar chest
I could not put this book down until I had finished it. Amazingly believable but shocking account of war zones in Africa, mingled with a touching and poignant story. Read more
Published on 27 Dec 2010 by Mj paterson
5.0 out of 5 stars Not your average father and son story
This amazing book, at its heart, is about the contrast of two distinct generations and perspectives: that of a post-modern war correspondent on the ground and often embedded during... Read more
Published on 9 Nov 2010 by Karen Kwa
5.0 out of 5 stars Extradordinary - everyone should read this
This is an extraordinary book - both in terms of its subject matter and the skill in which the various conflicts - and indeed the author's own history - are woven together into a... Read more
Published on 7 Oct 2010 by Jevcg
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