Picks and Pans Review: True at First Light: a Fictional Memoir
It's hard to imagine Hemingway approving a "fictional memoir." But this account of his life in Kenya in the early 1950s, an absorbing if hardly profound 311 pages, was reconstituted by the writer's son Patrick from a longer manuscript.
While the nationalist Mau Mau uprising that led to Kenya's independence in 1963 serves as backdrop, the book focuses on the crusade of Hemingway's fourth wife, Mary, to shoot a lion. Papa, meanwhile, pursues an affair with a young African woman. Hemingway's notable difficulty with female characters extends to Mary, whose tolerance for the affair with Debba is endless ("I'm glad you have such a nice fiancée," she says, unconvincingly, at one point).
The book never equals Hemingway's best hunting writing, Green Hills of Africa. And his always parody-ready style sometimes sinks to self-satire: About the lion hunt, he says, "It would have certainly been very bad for my writing if I had been killed." When someone calls him "hopeless," Hemingway foreshadows his own suicide. "No," he says. "I'm not hopeless because I still have hope. The day I haven't you'll know it bloody quick." (Scribner, $26)
Bottom Line: Not the master's best, but still the master's