Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

From page one of The Flame Trees of Thika I knew I’d stumbled across an incredibly observant and eloquent writer. Huxley succeeds in helping the reader taste, smell and see Kenya at the beginning of the 20th century. The following passage is just one example:

[On the shooting of a python:] Robin’s second shot was true. The head collapsed, the huge body writhed and lashed and threshed on the rocks, like some dark cauldron boiling over, like a monstrous worm of corruption spewed up from the caverns of the earth. The Kikuyu flung off their blankets and rushed naked into the stream to save it from falling into the river, but they did not touch it until the slithering coils lay still. Then they dragged it up the bank and stretched it out; and there in the middle, sure enough, was an enormous bulge, like a great bead strung on a cord. (p. 196)

It was a stroke of brilliance to write this book from the point of view of a small child. Obviously the book’s descriptions and insights into human nature are far beyond the powers of a child to communicate, but the child-as-narrator was a powerful tool because the author was able to report the conversation and actions of the adults without judgment. The same was true for her descriptions of the different tribal peoples who worked on or near her father’s coffee plantation.

So why didn’t I love this book? My heart yearned for character development and found none. Although the book was clean, there were implications of several extramarital affairs. I was reminded of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (reviewed here) who became less and less civilized as he moved toward the heart of the jungle. Here again were people who seemed less restrained by societal mores the farther they moved from their home cultures.

Still, I will always remember Huxley’s description of a sunset as “rose, lemon and the color of flamingo’s wings”. I turned that phrase over in my mind for three whole days! Would-be writers should read this book as a lesson in writing fresh metaphors. With all the distractions we fight against today I’m wondering if ANYONE still pays attention to details like this author.


Sarah M. said...

Thanks for leaving a comment re: BH. If you're interested in reading books set during the Industrial Revolution you may want to add Middlemarch by George Elliot and North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell to your list. N&S is set in well.. the north and south of England. It's shorter than MM and so might be a good one start with. Both MM and BH are long books... but still very excellent.

Rachel said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm going to the library to get the author's second, "Comfort Me with Apples."
She also uses metaphors if a fresh way, which is difficult when talking about childhood and food. I'm sure you'll enjoy "Tender at the Bone."