would it be like to return to your childhood home in Africa after
having been away for years to be educated in England? Rachel Fullsworth
is full of hope and excitement as she heads back to Kenya in the early
1950s to be reunited with her widowed father.
The steward has said we will dock at 9:00, but I am too excited to sleep, and I walk onto the deck in the dark, long before the sun comes up, watching for the first sight of land. I pull a packet of cigarettes from my coat pocket, light one, and inhale, smoke curling up into the warm night sky. My heart beats out a rhythm born of long anticipation. After six years, I'm finally coming home.—Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh (Putnam, 2016, p. 1 [a typo silently corrected])
- Setting: 1950s; Kenya (with some flashbacks)
- Circumstances: Rachel was sent to school in England at twelve
years old, shortly after her mother died. She is looking forward to
seeing her father and family home in Kenya, but soon after her arrival
she realizes the sociopolitical atmosphere has changed: English
colonialism is on its last legs, and the country of her heart is no
longer safe. What's more, Rachel discovers her father has been living
with a woman who is has little love for the Kikuyu. As civil unrest
threatens to turn violent, Rachel must figure out where her loyalties
lie: with family, with friends, or with a new dangerous love.
- Genre: historical fiction; adult audience
- Themes: family, racism, Africa, forbidden love, secrets
- Main characters: Rachel, facing the stark realities of her new life in Kenya; her widowed father, whose attentions have shifted to his live-in companion; the new woman of the house who rules with an iron fist; various friends and neighbors, both European and African; a love interest.
- Why I want to read this: First, I really enjoyed McVeigh's first novel, The Fever Tree, and I have every reason to believe the Leopard at the Door will have relatable, realistic characters and compelling story. Second, the novel's setting and time period call to me. The world was changing, and we often forget how larger political and cultural events affected the individuals who lived through them. Finally, I think I'm going to like Rachel's insider/outsider view point.
- Historical background: The book is set in the years of the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952-1960), in which hundreds of British soldiers and police and tens of thousands of African civilians were killed or executed. Leopard at the Door was inspired by McVeigh's life-long love of Kenya, including the romantic view presented by colonialist novels and memoirs. But after inheriting a small suitcase full of period papers, photos, and an unpublished manuscript that revealed the horrors of the Kikuyu uprising, McVeigh was awakened to the truth and knew she had to write this book.