Bibliophile reviews The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

This is the first of my From the Stacks challenge books I finish reading.

Year published: 1959
Genre: Biography, expatriate memoir

Robin and Tilly Grant and their 5 year old daughter, Elspeth, came to Thika in Kenya in 1912 to start a coffee farm. The book tells the story of the first years of their life on the farm until World War 1 started and Robin joined the army and Tilly and Elspeth left for England. With great clarity and beautiful prose Elspeth writes about the people, both Africans and European settlers, about nature and animals and events. She writes about what she saw as a child, but with an adult’s insight. The narrative is somewhat disjointed at times, as she often jumps years forwards in the middle of a sentence to show what the future outcome of some action or event was, and sometimes I was not sure she had gone back to the same place in the narrative where she had been before the jump. Her story gives an insight into the problems faced by the white settlers of Kenya and often reveals how woefully unprepared they were for the life that awaited them out on the African plains and how little they understood the native culture and ways of thinking.

While I enjoyed the book, it did not grab a hold of me like some memoirs have, possibly because I found myself unable to “enter” the story. Often, when reading about other countries, I have been able, to an extent, to feel I am there while reading, but I did not get this feeling when reading this book. I think this is because the author keeps a certain distance – she describes things like she’s telling a story rather than remembering things, which makes it feel more like a novel than a memoir. This is perhaps not surprising as the book was written something like 40 years after the events in it took place.

Rating: A lyrical and beautiful account of a childhood in Kenya that unfortunately reads more like a novel than a memoir. 4 stars.


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