Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Too Close to the Sun

A book review of

Too Close to the Sun – The life and times of Denys Finch Hatton

By Sara Wheeler, Random House, London 2007.

Several books have been written about the tempestuous relationship between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, especially Baroness Blixen’s own account in her marvelous memoir Out of Africa. In her version Tania (Karen) provides her perspective and romanticizes the relationship of two differing souls who connect in great passion. Author Wheeler is much less ethereal and more practical in arriving at a more realistic appraisal of the relationship. Her assessment tracks a careful evaluation of Denys’ life from childhood, through school and university and then into the wider world beyond.

Finch Hatton was indeed endowed with a unique personality. He was affable, gregarious and intelligent – but not a scholar. He was well connected, rich, and extremely good company. Yet his defining characteristic, and perhaps his fatal flaw, was that everybody liked him. He never seemed to have alienated anyone; cuckolded husbands included. Because life – women, money, opportunities – came so easy to him, Denys did not really find purpose in life until his forties. And by then – unbeknownst to him – he was almost done.

Finch Hatton stumbled upon Kenya early in life and despite several efforts to change venue, it stuck. He invested in land and other businesses before finding his métier as a white hunter and conservationist. Certainly, twice serving as guide to the Prince of Wales, Denys was a celebrity in his own right. It was a spotlight he was often subjected to. By and large he handled it well. Relationships came and went, but with Tania, Denys struck something new – a deeper melding of souls, one that transcended into a spiritual plane. Yet the tragedy of such love was that it could not last.

Several aspects of this intriguing tale stuck me as especially meritorious. First, the author periodically pulled back from the story of Finch Hatton to reset the world stage. Indeed that stage changed dramatically prior to World War I as Britain experienced a social revolution that marked the demise of the landed aristocracy. World War I itself sealed the transformation of Finch Hatton’s world. Although he participated fully in the war effort; first in East Africa and then in Mesopotamia, Denys (obviously) survived, but virtually every male friend of his youth died in the conflict. What a staggering loss.

The book was well researched and is beautifully written. Although I pride myself on vocabulary, author Wheeler repeatedly came up with words: “prolepic,” “ashlar,” “cyclamen,” “lubricious” and more that I had to look up either for definition or for proper usage. I enjoyed that additional challenge.

Too Close to the Sun is a marvelous read. For aficionados of colonial Kenya, books don’t get any better than this.

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