Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)

I’ve been thinking for a couple of days about this ‘review’ and how to approach gushing about this novel while also taking the negative aspects of colonialism seriously.  Normally, I wouldn’t write about a book club selection until after our meeting (which is this Sunday), but this time I really wanted to gather my thoughts before the discussion.

Karen Blixen under the pen name Isak Dinesen wrote Out of Africa about her nearly two decades in Africa, specifically Kenya.  She first traveled to Kenya with her husband/second cousin to operate their coffee plantation near the capital of Nairobi.  During the next several years, she divorced her husband, took over the plantation’s management, entered a long-term affair with game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, struggled with illness, and, eventually, the financial loss of her farm – leaving Africa behind for her native Denmark.

Within the pages of Out of Africa, you get much of her relationship and bond with Africa itself and its many peoples, but very little about her personal life – so I’d be wary to call this a memoir.  A lot of criticism for Dinesen’s novel revolves around how little she’s willing to share of herself which limits the reader’s understanding of her as a person and how she relates to everything around her.  There can be no character development when there is no real character discussed in any depth.  Dinesen, instead, chooses to focus solely on the running of her plantation, the African natives who inhabit and work ‘her’ lands, the friends who come and go on visits, and the extraordinary landscapes and wildlife surrounding her.  And she does this splendidly with the kind of prose that puts a giddy smile on my face and reminds with every page why I love reading so incredibly much.

Dinesen’s imagery is the kind of writing that makes film almost obsolete.  I can’t imagine a picture or movie doing her descriptions justice.  After 400 pages of such layered detail, the fact that I can still envision singular images from the first 20 pages is amazing – the lion with his head covered in blood from nose to ears, the pack of elephants described as resembling a Persian rug – really beautiful stuff.  And so, for me, Out of Africa becomes a sort of portal to a different world – the African bush of the early 20th century.  My senses are on fire with the visceral nature of Dinesen’s writing and I completely forgive her for leaving out her personal life – there are other books for that.  Think of Out of Africa as a travel log rather than a memoir.

As for the colonialism aspect of the novel, yes – this book is written from the European perspective and as such will sometimes make contemporary readers squirm.  Dinesen often expresses a parental condescension towards the native men, women, and children who live and work on the plantation.  She also thinks thoughts and behaves in ways we could easily label as racist and ignorant.  And those ideas and behaviors are wrong – we all know this (hopefully, we all know this), but her actions and the recording of them are honest and real and allow us to learn.  Out of Africa lets the reader get inside the mind of a well-meaning colonist, to understand where she is coming from, to know that she means nothing malicious, but that well-intentioned racism is still racism.  So, my suggestion to readers who are wary of the negativity of colonialism – supplement your reading with all the varying perspectives – those pro and against colonialism – African and European.  History should be viewed from all viewpoints – not just the ones we’ve determined to be correct.

I loved every moment I spent reading Out of Africa.  Upon completion, I immediately googled Dinesen, Kenya, and many other regions of Africa – desperate to spend more time there.  I even did some research on a Kenyan vacation and discovered that Dinesen’s house is now a museum!  If only I had massive quantities of disposable income!  The movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford is high on my must-watch list.  Anyway, if you haven’t read this book yet you are doing yourself a disservice.  Go forth and read!  I’ll do a quick follow up post after our book club discussion Sunday afternoon to share everyone else’s opinions.  Really looking forward to this discussion!

Next up, I’m currently reading Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller for the TLC tour and hope to start My Antonia by Willa Cather this week.  And I’m going to tentatively promise to finish A Clash of Kings this month as well.  We shall see!

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So what did the group think?  Very mixed bag – a very polarizing novel.  Those who loved the story same as me were enchanted by the African bush, saw Dinesen as a brave explorer, and loved reveling in the luscious prose.  Several members talked about how this is a book meant to be read oh-so-slowly so that you can really soak up the experience.

Those ladies who weren’t a fan tended to dislike Dinesen’s voice.  She wasn’t someone they cared about or wanted to get to know better.  Some even thought her despicable.

Most everyone loved the movie, however, no matter their feelings on the book.  And pretty much everyone agreed that Africa is a must-see destination at some point in life.

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7 thoughts on “Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)

    • I don’t think it’s a bad thing either and really enjoyed the concentration on her relationship with Africa rather than her romantic failures/successes.

  1. I was very into this book in college. Some of her descriptions just took my breath away … though, like you said, there are parts that just give you pause.

    • Her descriptions made this novel, hands down. I could read them over and over again. The harder parts garner great discussion and offer a terrific learning experience. A great book club read.

  2. With over 7 billion of us on earth now and land increasingly expensive to obtain, who doesn’t want to dream of acquiring a huge estate in a foreign land to mold as you wish? For me, I live that colonial fantasy through Karen Blixen as she had not only her property in Kenya but also her ancestral house in Rungstedlund. I wish I could be Karen Blixen instead of Generation X trapped renting forever in the USA, acquiring nothing much as baby boomers take it all.

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