White Rhino Hotel is a historical novel that takes place in Kenya after World
War 1. The Germans have been defeated, and now hundreds of immigrants are rushing to Kenya to
appropriate land and convert it to farms. One of these immigrants is Anton Rider, who was raised
by gypsies. He adapts well to Africa's harsh environment, befriending natives, Germans and attracting
the attention of some of the white women. Another of the immigrants is Gwenn Llewellyn, who
journeys to Africa to meet up with her veteran husband - but the Great War has not been kind to him,
and Gwenn finds him distant and and fragile.
The White Rhino Hotel is owned by a Lord Penfold, who has been in Africa for a
while. All the immigrants pass through his hotel on their way into the interior. There is a sinister
dwarf named Olivio Fonseca Alavedo at the hotel - his official title seems to be Chief of Staff at the White
Rhino. In reality, he is the power behind the throne. Olivio is a depraved and unlikely character, always
plotting (and achieving) revenge for slights. I guess we are meant to like him, because his antagonists
are the true villans of the books, men of evil out to exploit Africa for their own gain.
I think the best part of this novel is the description of wild Africa, as Anton goes
hunting with Karioki, a savvy native. Africa is a dangerous place, Bull pulls no punches. A young girl
wanders away from a stopped train and is confronted by a lion - in a more sentimental novelist's hands,
the young girl would be rescued by the derring-do of the just-in-time-arrival of the good guys. But in Bull's
Africa, bad things happen to anyone, and the girl is viciously mauled. I think this adds some suspense
to the book - anyone can be killed off, and at any time. There are man made perils and natural perils.
Another thread that runs through the book is the characters reading Dickens to
each other, for amusement or to learn reading/writing skills. I confess I have inexplicably never read any
of Dickens books, but the reverence these characters show for his work makes me want to hunt down a
copy of his more famous works and read them.
I will also have to consider hunting down The Cafe on the Nile, which is apparently
the sequel to this work. (Evidently, the characters must all be uprooted - I don't think the Nile runs through
Kenya, does it?) Checking Bartle Bull on Amazon, I see that there is in fact a third book in the series - Devil's
Oasis. So many novels, so little time...