What’s it all about?:
Out of Africa is Isak Dinesen’s memoir of her years in Africa, from 1914 to 1931, on a four-thousand-acre coffee plantation in the hills near Nairobi. She had come to Kenya from Denmark with her husband, and when they separated she stayed on to manage the farm by herself, visited frequently by her lover, the big-game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton, for whom she would make up stories “like Scheherazade.” In Africa, “I learned how to tell tales,” she recalled many years later. “The natives have an ear still. I told stories constantly to them, all kinds.” Her account of her African adventures, written after she had lost her beloved farm and returned to Denmark, is that of a master storyteller, a woman whom John Updike called “one of the most picturesque and flamboyant literary personalities of the century.”
What did I think?:
I read this book as part of a British Empire challenge that I am participating in with a group on GoodReads and looked forward to what seemed like a memoir about a beautiful and interesting country set in the early part of the 20th century. The author, Karen Christence Dinesen or Baroness Blixen-Finecke wrote under a variety of aliases including Isak Dinesen, Pierre Andrézel, Tania Blixen amongst some others. She is Danish in origin and this memoir is a chronicle of her years in Africa where she managed a four thousand acre coffee plantation often by herself due to a separation with her husband. What became apparent to me while reading this fascinating account was how much she had fallen in love with the country and she describes the surrounding landscape in vivid and rich terms:
“The air was cold to the lungs, the long grass dripping wet, and the herbs on it gave out their spiced astringent scent. In a little while on all sides the Cicada would begin to sing. The grass was me , and the air, the distant invisible mountains were me, the tired oxen were me. I breathed with the slight night-wind in the thorn trees.”
What I did also find extremely interesting in this book was the attitude that was taken towards the “natives.” The author did seem to be a fair manager of her farm and the native people that she employed to work on it and was also exceedingly sympathetic to those in need however I felt that her tone edged towards the patronising when she referred to these people, as if she was very aware of her position and who was beneath her in the rankings. On the other hand, you could put this down to the attitudes prevalent at the time of writing which certainly would not be as acceptable in today’s society. She also tried her hand at doctoring, despite having little experience – just what you would learn on a first aid course, and did manage to have a few successes which she called “lucky cures,” although more worrying was her “catastrophic mistakes,” none of which are elaborated on. More than once, she also referred to herself as akin to God in the dealings she had with the native people, which was slightly uncomfortable to read.
On a positive note, I did enjoy reading about her interactions with the people (and animals!) of the country, especially Lulu, a little fawn that she adopted who grew up quite contentedly with the dogs of the farm as if they were family. At the end of her stay when she realises she cannot economically manage the farm anymore the reader feels her profound sadness as she prepares to leave a country she thinks of as her home even to the extent that she considers being buried there. This part of the memoir was especially touching and poignant and gives a real sense of the dismay that the author feels at leaving people that she has begun to consider as friends. I think in general I did find this an interesting read, although I probably wouldn’t read it again yet the language and style of writing is especially beautiful and should be commended and appreciated.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):