Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh
Today is my stop on the blog tour for Leopard at the door a gritty historical novel about life in Kenya in the 1950s.
Stepping off the boat in Mombasa, eighteen-year-old Rachel Fullsmith stands on Kenyan soil for the first time in six years. She has come home.
But when Rachel reaches the family farm at the end of the dusty Rift Valley Road, she finds so much has changed. Her beloved father has moved his new partner and her son into the family home. She hears menacing rumours of Mau Mau violence, and witnesses cruel reprisals by British soldiers. Even Michael, the handsome Kikuyu boy from her childhood, has started to look at her differently.
Isolated and conflicted, Rachel fears for her future. But when home is no longer a place of safety and belonging, where do you go, and who do you turn to?
Leopard at the door is not your average historical romantic fiction, it is a dark and powerful look at a time and place when culture clashes and grievances erupted into a regime of utter brutality and violence.
Set in Kenya in 1952, the story is narrated by 18 year old Rachel, who is returning to the Kenya of her childhood, to the family farm where she was brought up, until the age of 12, on her colonial parents remote family farm in a pretty idyllic environment. Her childhood companions the native Kenyans who work for her family, she was even educated by a Kenyan tutor. Roaming around the nearby bush and fishing in the dam, the long sunny days and cries of the wildlife are imprinted firmly on her memory despite being uprooted and shipped off to cold gloomy England at the age of 12 following the sudden death of her Mother.
All she has longed for ever since is to return, but she discovers the Kenya of her childhood is long gone and its place is a country simmering with political tension, threats and terror always just over the horizon. The biggest threat these days is not from the leopard roaring in the bush, but from the natives themselves. Its seldom possible to go back and find things how they were and change is not always for the good.
The story is about how man can turn on the fellow man he has always looked up to, and how if the hand that feeds does it carelessly and disrespectfully, undoubtedly it will be bitten.
The driving force of this story is the Mau Mau uprising of a rebel factor of the Kikuyu tribespeople, and true news headlines and reports are scattered throughout the book as Rachel listens to illicit radio broadcasts from the UK. The Mau Mau are forcing their fellow tribesmen to swear an oath to join them in their revolt against oppression by the white settlers who now aim to claim their lands and virtually enslave them. But by doing this the rebels end up committing vile atrocities against their unwilling fellow natives and ultimately against the British, whom they begin to terrorize and brutally slaughter in violent murderous attacks where folk are hacked to death with Pangas or burned in their beds.
I told you it wasn't an easy read!
What struck me most in this book is the contrast, the beautifully described, idyllic, location of stunningly beautiful rural Kenya, the peaceful Great Rift Valley, the expansive Bush, the wide open spaces, the searingly hot sun and the wildlife. In contrast are the hideous atrocities committed, against livestock, pets, men women and children and also in contrast are the thoroughly dislikeable characters who range in character from the weak and foolish to the truly despicable.
Do not be fooled into thinking this will be a nice gentle holiday read! This is a harsh and brutal telling of a terrible period in history, a tale of barbarity and vicious cruelty and it doesn't pull ANY punches. How could a book based on such a terrible historical event be anything but emotional and harrowing? Yet is is instantly gripping and I was swept through Nairobi to the Rift Valley with the unfolding horrors playing out as a backdrop, much as Rachel was borne along on events over which she had no control but just had to observe. It is terrible in its simplicity and awesome in its barbarity and a thoroughly fabulously researched and deeply emotive tale. The author undoubtedly knows her location intimately and respects its heritage as well as the nature.
I personally found the animal cruelty as distressing as that done to the humans, after all it could be argued that the British brought it on themselves, but their pets? livestock? Children?
It is a very chilling tale, which had me looking over my shoulder for men with cleavers creeping up behind me and listening for the telltale sounds which can mean the Mau Mau are coming.
But don't let this put you off reading it. If you enjoy gritty realistic historical fiction based on true events, let this book be your introduction to the Kenyan Mau Mau uprising.
It educated me about a period in history which took place just before I was born and thus I had only just heard a little about. This plays out in an Africa colonized by the British whilst at home in England the new Queen Elizabeth enjoys her coronation ceremony.
The poignancy of the diversity and tension of the events unfolding make this quite a genre defying historical novel. It is not a romance although there is a simmering, forbidden passion which I failed to be able to regard as romantic, just ill advised and doomed from the outset.
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