Top positive review
22 people found this helpful
on 20 September 1999
This may be the best book I've read all year. I ran across it quite by accident while looking for books on Africa in amazon.co.uk. As far as I know, "The Africa House" hasn't yet been published in the U.S. If not, it's a pity, and once it is published here, I hope that amazon.com and other American booksellers give it the attention it deserves.
"The Africa House" is the biography of Stewart Gore-Browne, an Army officer of good family who settles in a remote part of Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia) after the First World War with the intention of creating a great country estate. He builds an enormous house, fills it with imported furniture, art, books and wine, and employs as many as 1,000 local people to keep the place going. Although he tries a number of business ventures on the property, such as distilling tropical oils used in perfume, his grand scheme mostly loses money, yet he remains steadfastly devoted to it until his death in 1967.
Dressing for dinner every night, wearing a monocle, occasionally beating his servants, playing "La Bohème" on the gramophone, raising and lowering the Union Jack every day, Gore-Browne is outwardly the very image of a high colonial official. Yet the reality is that he mostly detests colonial officialdom, and has a high respect for Africans, and they for him. One of his acquaintances is the young Kenneth Kaunda, who later becomes Zambia's first President. He is disappointed not to be invited into Kaunda's government after the transition to black rule, but remains Kaunda's friend and informal adviser until his death, when Kaunda gives him a state funeral.
Gore-Browne's personal life is another interesting theme of the story. Throughout his life he has an unusual affection for an aunt twenty-odd years his senior, writes to her nearly every day, and longs for her to come and live with him in Africa. He loses his first real love to another man, and much later ends up marrying her daughter, twenty-odd years his junior. He has two daughters by his young wife, who leaves him after a few years and returns to England. He lives alone in the great house for the rest of his life, though he has many visitors, travels back to England occasionally, delights in his grandchildren, and remains close to his servants.
"The Africa House" can hold its own against the classics of the colonials-in-Africa genre, such as "Out of Africa," "West with the Night," and the stories of Ernest Hemingway. It also would make a good movie. Christina Lamb is to be congratulated on a remarkable achievement, and I look forward to her next book.