Title: Out of Africa
Author: Isak Dinesen (pen name of Baroness Karen Blixen)
Year Published: 1937
Places Explored: Kenya, especially Nairobi and the Ngong Hills area
My Rating: ♦♦♦♦♦
I knew basically from the iconic first line, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of Ngong Hills”, that I would enjoy this book and I’m so glad I read it! The basic outline of the book–a wealthy woman moving from Europe to Africa in the 1920s and running a coffee farm there (largely on her own) for 17 years–is promising, but Isak Dinesen really pulled off a work of literature here.
First of all, she can write. The prose throughout the book is beautiful, and you can feel her love for Africa and its people on every page. Beyond that, she is one of those rare writers who understands people, who understands life, and is able to express her thoughts in ways that ring true for the reader. When Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, it’s said that he claimed Isak Dinesen was more deserving of it than him. To me, at least, it makes sense that he would admire her, since he has also said,
All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.
I feel that this is what Isak Dinesen did throughout her story–she wrote her truth about Africa. As you read, you fall in love with Africa–its landscape, animals, and people–as she did. Throughout the story, you’ll encounter many different interesting people and cultures, from her European associates to her Kikuyu and Somali workers on the farm to the mysterious Maasai who live nearby. This isn’t an anthropological work by any means, but I loved hearing about the different cultural exchanges that went on in (what would become) Kenya during that time period.
By the end of the novel, you are so caught up in the Africa she paints that you are almost as heartbroken as she was when she/you have to leave it. My edition of the book includes Shadows on the Grass, a shorter memoir on her time in Africa that was written years after Out of Africa. I don’t feel like I’m ready to read it yet after the sad end to Out of Africa, but I would like to pick it up someday and reenter her world.
After reading the book, I also decided to watch the movie. It’s a great movie (winning several Academy Awards), and I like how it fills in some of the more personal details of Karen’s life–ones she was very vague about in Out of Africa. I wonder if some of those details are included in Shadows on the Grass. If you have seen the movie before reading the book however, you should expect a completely different focus. The movie was very much about Karen and her relationships with Bror Blixen and later Denys Finch-Hatton, but to be honest it wasn’t obvious that she was “with” Denys until about halfway through the book. The story is much more about the farm, the people she knew, and Africa.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Africa, traveling or living as an expat in general. It will take you through the struggles making a life in a new country, growing coffee in the mountains of Africa, traveling on safari, hunting for lions, flying over the African landscape, and getting to know the people of Africa at the time in a way no other book can!
It was a glorious sight, like a reflection in a pool, like a thing that had happened a thousand years ago.
The thing which in the waking world comes nearest to a dream is night in a big town, or the African night.
You know you are truly alive when you are living among lions.
Shadows on the Grass – Isak Dinesen
Letters from Africa – Isak Dinesen
Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa – Peter Beard