Reviewed by Emma Crowley
East Africa 1903:When eighteen year old Iris Johnson is forced to choose between marrying the frightful Lord Sidcup or a faceless stranger, Jeremy Lawrence, in a far-off land, she bravely decides on the latter.
Accompanied by her chaperone, Miss Logan, Iris soon discovers a kindred spirit who shares her thirst for knowledge. As they journey from Cambridgeshire to East Africa, Iris’s eyes are opened to a world she never knew existed beyond the comforts of her family home.
But when Iris meets Jeremy, she realizes in a heartbeat that they will never be compatible. He is cold and cruel, spending long periods of time on hunting expeditions and leaving Iris alone.
Determined to make the best of her new life, Iris begins to adjust to her surroundings; the windswept plains of Nairobi, and the delightful sunbirds that visit her window every day. And when she meets Kamau, a school teacher, Iris finds her calling, assisting him to teach the local children English.
Kamau is everything Jeremy is not. He is passionate, kind and he occupies Iris’s every thought. She must make a choice, but if she follows her heart, the price she must pay will be devastating.
It has been almost two years since the incredible debut novel from Rebecca Stonehill that was The Poet's Wife. It's been such a long wait for me but finally Rebecca returns with The Girl and the Sunbird set mostly in East Africa in the 1930's - a time of great change for the country and for the people who resided there. Having read the author's first book I compared it to the work of Victoria Hislop and I still stand by that comparison. I've also read that Rebecca's writing is similar to that of Dinah Jefferies and Lucinda Riley, both of whom are two of my favourite authors, so I was keen to discover would I experience once again the same enthralling, absorbing feelings I have every time I read a book by the above mentioned authors? I was simply blown away by The Poets Wife and it stuck in my mind for a long time after I had finished reading it. It was an epic story of love that really struck a chord with me and it would be interesting to see would the author achieve the same effect with book two considering the gap between this second release and the first.
The Girl and the Sunbird is a haunting, utterly heartbreaking story of an unforgettable woman who is transported from the life she has always known in England to the hot, dusty, vastly different country that is Kenya many years ago as it is attempting to establish itself. Well rather the British are attempting to exert their control over another foreign country to expand their power and influence. Our main female character Iris Johnson is a woman about to be married to an older man who she soon comes to realise she can never love the way a woman should love her husband the man she is supposed to spend the rest of her life with. Stuck in a country totally alien to her she is lonely and lost so who can she turn to?
The book opens with an extremely brief prologue at only a page long yet it certainly packs a punch as it is intriguing yet disturbing. 'Five days eight hours I will die.' Just who is this Maitho that is speaking? What has happened that has led this person to this situation? Iris Johnson is living in Cambridgeshire with her family but her mother is putting pressure on her to find a lord to marry and live in contentment with many children. But things do not work out as planned and soon Iris finds herself on her first voyage across the seas all the way to Mombasa accompanied by Penelope Logan, a woman of great learning and knowledge who in time will grow to be a confident and a source of support and strength for Iris. Just why is Iris transplanted from her country of birth to a country radically different from everything she has ever known? Marriage is the answer, women can't be left on the shelf they need to go somewhere. Answering the call of a Mr. Jeremy Lawrence who placed an ad in a newspaper seeking a second wife (following the death of his first) Iris finds herself in a country full of new sights, sounds, smells, foods, aromas and all manner of exotic things. It's a feast for the senses as Iris has to acclimatise and also learn how to be a married woman to a much older man who is cold and aloof. To me it seemed Iris was like a slave as in her family more or less sold her off they knew she couldn't stay at home forever and had to do something with her. Her mother showed a complete lack of empathy but you could sense her father's softer side and he was distraught at what was befalling his daughter.
Immediately when the book moves to Africa Rebecca Stonehill absolutely nailed every aspect, I felt I was right there beside Iris as in one way she puts on a brave face that she is happy with her new life and marriage but deep down she is angry with her family. On the other hand she wants to experience all this exotic country has to offer especially as it is a time of expansion and growth with the British building railways and roads linking barren desert and countryside to large towns in the hopes of building up the country to a powerhouse like the Indian Empire was. Iris basically was like a fish out of water but deep inside her there was a strength of character waiting to emerge, someone who knew what she wanted in life and wouldn't sit back and let others walk all over her. If she wasn't happy she would make it her aim to find that elusive happiness and although what unfolds may go against what many people believe in, you do really have to step back and look at each person's individual circumstances and I believe in this case Iris had no other option as her marriage was loveless and all for show.
There are huge cultural differences between England and the town of Nairobi and for any young woman uprooted from the family home and finding themselves in a hot, desolate part of the world it would be a shock to the system and faced with a boor of a husband Iris obviously had to make her own entertainment. Jeremy struck me as a person who gets his kicks from putting others down, being in control and treating those less fortunate than him as servants and of the lower classes. He is a man who like to exert his power over those in command. Iris is a mere plaything to him, the trophy wife necessary for social outings and to assume a good position in Nairobi society amongst the English. If there are children even better but as for Iris' own thoughts, feelings and opinions or what she she is to do everyday in this new country that is not crucial or worthy of much thought or consideration. Iris must occupy herself. Jeremy was just a bully a man who you would do best to avoid at all costs.
As I have mentioned Rebecca Stonehill brings Nairobi and the surrounding countryside to life, the writing just takes your breath away as it is so beautiful, profound and poetic. It's clear there has been impeccable research into the writing of this book and Iris' story proves to be compelling and heartbreaking in equal measure. I felt her loneliness as she spent hours along at the house while Lawrence was away working or hunting with only the maid for companionship. But underneath it all Iris was woman of strength and she understood she had to make the best of the situation she found herself in. Her marriage may be loveless and more or less a front but she herself could find contentment through interaction with others. 'Rather like Alice in her wonderland, the longer I am here in this strange place built upon dusty plains and papyrus swamps, the less hostile it feels.' Iris soon begins to wander from the house and discovers a nearby school where Kamu is a teacher. They strike up a friendship and Alice teaches the children some English. It proves a delightful distraction from the life she now finds herself living, in fact the friendship soon develops into something more and Iris can't control the passion she feels. I didn't in the least bit blame Iris for what she did, she was young and had her whole life ahead of her and stuck with a man much older than herself was obviously not much fun. The relationship that materialises between Iris and Kamu felt real and all consuming, there was a rawness, a passion and a deep connection that just radiated from the pages. Even though their love was forbidden and it discovered would have devastating consequences for all involved some times you have to give into what your heart is saying. Iris is soon faced with a choice which took the book in a completely different direction, one which I had not expected but which gave the story a slightly different edge and feel different to other books I have read in this genre and which made this book all the more special and intriguing.
For me The Girl and the Sunbird was a simply stunning piece of writing that will have many readers captivated from the outset. It seemed to have three distinct stages/sections or even movements to the story with a great flow and rhythm. Yes there was a tale of romance against all the odds and the consequences if found out but the later half of the book took on a different tone and feel which wasn't necessarily bad just unexpected but in a good way. The story could have followed convention and it would have all panned out so simply but that would have been a cop out instead the history of the country in later years came to the fore and twists and turns abounded. The later chapters were both haunting and mesmerising and you never knew what the exact outcome would be.The author kept you on your toes guessing and in my opinion the ending was fitting and very apt for all that had gone beforehand and I thoroughly enjoyed how she went against the rules to create a wonderfully, atmospheric read that really gets under your skin and into your heart.
Despite enjoying this fantastic story The Poet's Wife ever so slightly edges this one out, and maybe that's because it had such a profound impact on me at the time, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this brilliant story of love, loss and hope of a young woman who followed her heart. Make sure this is on your reading list this summer you won't be disappointed and hopefully Rebecca won't keep us waiting too long for book number three.
Many thanks to Bookouture for my copy of The Girl and the Sunbird via NetGalley to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.