I thanked him, and looked for something to give in return, but my pockets yielded only a crumpled handkerchief, a knife, a few beans, and bits of string. I thought perhaps the knife would do and offered it to Kupanya, but he shook his head.
‘The traveller does not give a present to those who stay, it is those who remain who give presents to the traveller to help him on his journey, and bring about his safe return.’
So, remember how I remarked up on the dreamy quality of childhood memories recounted in Elspeth Huxley’s memoir The Flame Trees of Thika?
That covered the first 80 pages or so. The remaining 200 maintained much of that, but also had an element that completely took me by surprise.
I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising that a child alone among adults in a colonial, rural situation, would be exposed to subjects that we might not consider appropriate for a five or six-year-old.
Like, for example, the rather obvious inclusion of not one but TWO extramarital affairs in The Flame Trees of Thika. I’m pretty sure Huxley used fake names for the people in her story – indeed I know she did for her parents – but the characters of Mrs. Nimmo and Lettice Palmer are both shown to have engaged in extramarital relationships. With Mrs. Nimmo, it’s unclear how much it extends beyond physical. Her husband is almost always gone, and when he does show up, he is gruff and almost scornful of his wife. For all that I disapprove of the cheating, I can understand how she might be drawn to the earnest chivalry of Alec Wilson, at least for a night.
Lettice Palmer, however, is another story, and much of that story is shadowed in mystery. It would appear that Huxley’s mother knew more, and was indeed the confidante of the real ‘Lettice Palmer.’ Many scenes in which Lettice confides in Tilly include Elspeth being sent from the room on some pretext.
One of the reviewer blurbs on the back of the book says, “There is no smartness, no hindsight, no false sophistication. We get the magic strangeness, with a child’s unerring instinct for essentials.”
I think that about sums up the appeal of The Flame Trees of Thika. Huxley makes no apology for being a white colonist on African land. She is neither defensive nor revisionist nor self-flagellating.
It’s simply the memories of a child who observed and enjoyed her childhood surroundings. She thought about what she encountered, and pondered the stories and traditions of the odd assortment of people around her, both European and African.
I’d write more, but it’s late and I’m very tired.
Next up: The Scenic Route, by Devan Sipher