Reviewed by Emma Crowley
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?
Five years is an awfully long time to wait for a follow up book from an author whose début you simply adored. Such a long gap between books makes you wonder will there ever be another and will it be worth the wait or has the 'difficult' second novel just proved that one bit too much? Well I am glad to say Jennifer McVeigh's follow up to The Fever Tree, Leopard at the Door, was worth every bit of that tedious wait and it is just as good if not better than her first novel.
I stumbled across The Fever Tree quite by accident when it was first published and instantly fell in love with the author's style of writing. She has such a way with words and it's clear she loves Africa where her two books have been set. Within a few pages of Leopard at the Door I found myself lost in an incredible story and before I knew it I was nearing the end. It's a book I didn't want to finish reading as I felt I had been transported to Kenya at such a raw and tumultuous time yet the author balances these life changing events with a beautiful story of a young girl trying to find herself again and readjust to a world in which her family have moved on and so has the political climate. Yet she so fervently wished that things could have remained the same as she holds close the memories from her idyllic childhood, yet time and people are always marching on and Rachel must try to do the same.
Instantly from the opening chapter as Rachel, now a young woman of 18, sails into Mombassa after spending six years living in England there is a real sense of time and place. The reader is exposed to a whole new world - the heat, sights, sounds, smells and colours all make for a visual feast and are in direct contrast with the life Rachel experienced in England. Ever since the tragic death of her mother Rachel has been boarding in a draughty girls school and spending her holidays with her aloof grandparents. This absence from Kenya was enforced upon Rachel and it's only now she feels her life can begin again as she comes back to the place where she feels at one, at peace and at home. Kenya is so vastly different to England and when Rachel returns there is unease and unrest as the Mau Mau rebellion is beginning to gather steam. I loved how the author mixed historical events with Rachel's personal story but it didn't feel like I was reading a history book that was boring and stilted. To be honest I had only vaguely heard about the rebellion and through such clever, compelling writing Jennifer McVeigh brought the period alive on the pages packing the story full of emotion and tension so much so that you never knew just quite what would happen and more often than not your heart was in your mouth.
The reader can see Rachel has been through a lot, her experiences as a young girl on the rural farm run by her father shaped the person she is today. Returning home she fears having had no contact with her father for so many years that things have changed irreparably and there may no way of reclaiming the memories and feelings she has longed for in her absence. She fears her father really doesn't want her home and he will not speak to her. I felt sorry for Rachel that such a life altering experience of loosing your mother led to even more change. Her father seemed to have gotten rid of her as soon as possible and in doing so damaged their relationship. She was uprooted from everything she had known but I loved how her affection and longing for the farm never wavered and how she still held some belief that the relationship with her father could be repaired. When Rachel arrives at the farm I could clearly picture everything in my head and that's thanks to such brilliant writing from the author, I sensed how the farm was isolated yet at the same time it was a cocoon and a safe haven for its residents who work as hard as they can eking a living from the land. Rachel wants to bring back the good times and begin afresh, a new chapter in her life. She perhaps wasn't counting on a new woman in her mother's place - Sara.
Sara has been imposing changes at the farm and not for the better. I didn't like Sara one bit throughout the story, she made no attempt at getting to know Rachel and understanding where she was coming from. She seemed to have taken over the running of the household and tradition and custom went out the window. She was a city woman who seemed reluctant to be at the farm and I never sensed her relationship with Sara's father Robert was really genuine. Cruel wouldn't be the correct word for Sara but she was cold and didn't do her best to make the return home a welcome one for Sara. By contrast her son Harold was a character I did grow to like and Rachel did the same. He had a deep passion for photography and despite protest from his mother he often disappeared into the African bush photographing wild animals, life on the farm and the Kikuya people. I think Rachel felt a connection with him as like her he was in a vulnerable position and slightly isolated. Harold's storyline surprised me twice but it gelled well with the overall themes within the book.
Rachel is not happy with how things have progressed in her absence but she tries to assimilate herself back into the way of life she remembers and loves. She has such a deep connection with the land and people she wants to re-stablish this as proven by her encounter with Michael who was her tutor all those years ago and a person she had deep faith and confidence in. Michael was a bit of an enigma, always there on the outskirts and never being fully able to interact with ease with Rachel due to him being 'black' or part of the others, the people whom Sara would have viewed as being there to serve. The reader could see there is a connection between Rachel and Michael that goes back a long way. He will protect her if he can and be there for her but Rachel's vision and her memories of a peaceful happy life at the farm are solely being eroded as the rebellion shifts up a gear and discontent and unrest increase by the day.
Jennifer McVeigh presented a very balanced view of the position the white farmers found themselves in and how the native people who had lived n the lands for thousands of years now wanted their independence and country back. I can't say I agree with the means either side used to achieve what they wanted but it did make for powerful reading. The terror and fear escalated and built to a very dramatic conclusion. Lawlessness, violence and disorder abounded and the author did not spare the descriptions and I am glad she did not because that was the brutal realities of the time. Life in 1950's Kenya was not easy for either side and it had to come to a head at some stage. A certain aspect regrading Rachel felt more than unjust to me and for her it probably made her realise that her intuition had been correct and she was more a stranger in her own home and as the title suggest the leopard never was far from the door in more ways than one. Perhaps the character I detested most of all was Steven, a prime example of a white man determined to exert his power and control using any means possible. There was a real sense of one-upmanship with him and he seemed to hold some sway over Rachel. She lived in fear of him and as it is revealed why I felt nothing but sympathy for her.
After a slight lull in the middle of the book everything really picked up a gear as the outside tensions and events made their way into the lives of the people living on the farm. Rachel finds herself living in fear as danger lurks behind every corner. Who can she trust? Will the Mau Mau seek their revenge right at her door in their quest for independence and to reclaim what is rightfully there's? Rachel is torn in two as the story only becomes ever more absorbing and exhilarating as all the back story, the introduction of the various characters and the different plot-lines all began to bear fruit and climax in the most powerful and emotional of ways. Rachel is a most memorable character who gets inside your head and does not relinquish her grip until the very last word. She is a strong main character and holds the book together. Her past moulds the person she is today and how she will be in the future. Although outside events encroach on her life, her strength and deep connection with the land will attempt to see her through.
Leopard at the Door was a wonderfully crafted novel and just the kind of book I love to get lost in. With an assured pace, rising tension, crafty twists and beautifully imagery this is a story not to be missed. My only hope is that Jennifer McVeigh won't keep us waiting quite so long for her next book. I suggest once you have finished this book do try The Fever Tree and also there is a trilogy set in Africa by Barbara and Stephanie Keating which are in a similar vein and would make for just as good reading.
Many thanks to Penguin Books UK for my copy of Leopard at the Door via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.