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Review: Leopard at the Door, by Jennifer McVeigh
Putnam, 2016. 385 pp. $26

Ever since her mother died, and her father sent her to live with her grandparents in England, Rachel Fullsmith has dreamed of returning to Kenya, where she was born. Now, at age eighteen, against her father’s advice, she has spent her meager savings for her passage to Mombasa. As Rachel quickly learns, she finds hostility rather than fond memories of what she loved as a child.

That hostility comes in two forms, personal and political. The year is 1952, and the independence movement known as Mau Mau has been gathering force. Thus far, the Mau Mau have refrained from attacking white residents, though they have murdered and mutilated Africans who refuse to swear their loyalty oath. But as the violence and British countermeasures ratchet up, Rachel will have excruciating choices to make.

A detachment of the King's African Rifles, on patrol against Mau Mau forces, ca. 1952-56 (courtesy Imperial War Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

A detachment of the King’s African Rifles, on patrol against Mau Mau forces, ca. 1952-56 (courtesy Imperial War Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As the opening scenes make clear, the instincts her mother taught her stress compassion toward fellow humans over race loyalty and its inherent prejudice. Right off the boat, she’s delighted to realize that she still speaks good Swahili, and that the port of Mombasa looks and feels like heaven, despite the filth and bad smells. Her father’s Kikuyu foreman, who meets her and drives her upcountry, calls her Aleela (“she cries”), a pet name she had as a child, which touches her. But her father hasn’t come to greet her, and when Rachel reaches the farm, she sees another woman there, Sara, whom he never mentioned in his letters. It takes no time for Sara to let Rachel know that she shares her father’s bed, runs everything (including him), and plans to marry him. And rather than ease the shock, Sara takes the first chance to ask Rachel privately, “Why did you come?” Aleela will be doing a lot of crying, it seems.

I love McVeigh’s premise and the way she sets it up, with potent economy and subtlety. She knows how to spin a riveting narrative so that the tension never flags, and she devotes this skill to advance her political themes, embodied in Sara, who grew up in Nairobi, hates rural Kenya, which she calls “barren,” and holds herself distant from and superior to anything African. That makes her as different as she could be from Rachel’s mother, and the young woman pays the price, both in what she’s lost and her putative stepmother’s authoritarian regime. Sara forbids her to spend so much time outdoors on the land, urges her to dress in a more “feminine” way, and openly questions whether Rachel’s absence of fear or hatred for Africans means she’s been spoiled or tainted. McVeigh wants you to see that colonialism exists because of people like Sara.

Since I’ve spent time in Africa myself, though never had the good fortune to visit Kenya, I was delighted to read descriptions like this, of Rachel’s impressions of Mombasa:

Bougainvillea tumble over white walls, purple, orange, crimson red, amidst the trumpets of white datura flowers and clusters of pink hibiscus. Dhow captains spread their intricately woven carpets on the street for sale, beating out the dust in thick clouds. Porters in bare feet and white lunghis pad across the hot cobbles between piles of old newspaper and fish bones, past the Arab men dressed in white robes, who sit on low wooden stools drinking tea.

Despite all this brilliance, however, the characters ring false. Sara has no redeeming qualities whatsoever; at one point, Rachel even wonders why her father would have her around and ascribes it to sexual power. But that’s never developed enough to seem real. Moreover, making such a hateful, disagreeable person the mouthpiece for colonialism undermines takes the low road to simplicity and undermines what the author’s trying to say.

Ditto Steven Lockhart, the corrupt, abusive district officer who likes torturing Africans and warns Rachel that he’ll rape her one day. Of both Sara and Steven, I kept thinking, “They’re not really going to say or do that, will they?” only to slap my head when they really do. What’s more, for these characters to be as vicious as they are and get away with it requires Rachel and her father to be as passive as bricks. Not only don’t I believe that–each has taken bold steps in life–I find passivity uninteresting as a literary device.

What that means is that Leopard at the Door must sustain the tension via melodrama. I won’t go into the perils that McVeigh unleashes, which are truly terrifying. Even so, the novel’s Gothic aspects make it less powerful than it should be. That’s a terrible shame. As McVeigh notes in a postscript (and contrary to widely held belief), the facts suggest that the colonial administration wielded far more terror than the Mau Mau did, and in a manner flagrantly belying the rule of law the British pretended to uphold as a “civilizing” mission. I only wish this book had set the record straight in a more nuanced, three-dimensional manner.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.