My Holiday Read

In the first of a new series, Ian Rankin recalls using Tolstoy's War and Peace to fend off lions in

Last year, my wife and I spent a couple of weeks on safari in Kenya. It was blazing hot, and as we'd be spending many hours without access to a television, I decided to pack a big fat book I'd never had time to read. I chose War and Peace. In the end, over the course of the 14 days, I was able to read only the first six or seven hundred pages (later finishing the book at home in Edinburgh).

There was, however, something surreal about staring out across wide African expanses as the sun dipped down, a copy of Tolstoy's epic on my lap and a cold alcoholic beverage to hand. Often, we had no electricity. Knowing this would be the case, I'd borrowed a torch, and would read whole chapters by torchlight as I lay in the tent. Unfortunately, this often attracted unwelcome insect visitors. Having sprayed myself with mosquito repellent, I would lie cocooned within a single cotton sheet to continue reading, whisking myself back to pre-teen years when post-bedtime books would be read furtively in much the same way.

My partner Miranda found this hilarious, as the torch made mad silhouettes of my hunched, shrink-wrapped form. I would also be radiating heat, beads of sweat dripping on to the pages. Eventually Miranda begged me to read out passages aloud - especially the ones set in Russia's brutal winter months. These became our mental air-conditioning as the real temperature stubbornly refused to dip below 34 degrees.

One night a candlelit table for two was set up in the middle of the reserve so that we could enjoy a romantic dinner. There was darkness all around, and the sudden sound of a lion's roar. The waiter assured us the beast was at least a mile off. Even so, my hands played with my ever-present copy of War and Peace, assessing its value as a weapon. I was thankful I hadn't packed a slim volume of poetry instead.

Ian Rankin's novel Fleshmarket Close is published in September by Orion

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Exodus: the great British migration