Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews


Ethnée Holmes à Court
Random House, 1997 335pp
ISBN: 0-224-04376-5

reviewed by Ann Skea

"...one might glimpse an underlying motive of the African years - to recover something elemental and primitive, an ancient feast, a mythologized childhood, an antidote to Europe corrupted by sophistication and pretence."

Who, I wonder, decided that Ethnée Holmes à Court should publish her life story? Was it someone who thought the name would be sure to attract attention and guarantee sales? Or did she, herself, think her deeds should be so recorded?

Whoever it was, Ethnée was not well-served by her ghost-writer, for whom every sun "erupts" in flawless, crimson glory on the horizon, every African landscape has a choral accompaniment, and who never tells us that someone has died, only that they have "passed away" - tragically, of course! The only pleasure I could find as I ploughed my way through the cliché-ridden prose, was the occasional glorious misuse of words like 'dénouement'.

Ethnée's story is unusual to the extent that she grew up in Rhodesia, was a champion horse-rider, and developed, with her second husband Charles, the first hotel in the new Chobe River game-park in the(then) Bechuanaland Protectorate. Otherwise, it is little different to that of many other women who grew up in British colonies, had husbands return traumatised from war-service, and who ran their own successful small businesses to survive. And many who left their homes, livelihood and money in Rhodesia when Independence was declared fared far worse than she.

Ethnée, who is obsessed with horses to the extent that she even translates her height into 'hands', is lucky that Robert, her billionaire, "corporate genius" son, was able to provide her with a stud farm to manage before he died. In the book, we hear a great deal about her beloved horses and other animals, and perhaps not quite so much about Robert. If you buy the book looking for insight into the character of corporate geniuses you will be disappointed. There are details of Robert's birth ("As labours go I must have set a record time"), a little about his childhood (although he and his brother were away at school for much of their young lives) and a little about his wife, Janet, their family and their business acumen. But mostly this is a rather boastful, egocentric narrative, the final paragraph of which filled me with dismay:

"Now we will continue to do "our own thing". We are already planning our next overseas trip - perhaps the beginning of my next book!"


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