Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

This is the first book I’ve read by Jennifer McVeigh, although I do remember hearing good things about her first novel, The Fever Tree. This latest one, Leopard at the Door, sounded appealing too – and I did like it, although it was a much darker novel than I’d been expecting!

The novel opens in 1952 with our narrator, Rachel Fullsmith, arriving in Kenya after an absence of six years. Rachel was born to British parents but spent her childhood in Kenya until, after losing her mother at the age of twelve, she was sent to England to live with her grandparents. Now, as an eighteen-year-old, she is returning to the place she still considers to be home, only to find that everything has changed…and not in a good way.

Trouble is brewing in Kenya, with unrest threatening to spill over into violence as the group known as Mau Mau begin to rebel against British rule. Rachel has fond memories of her friendships with the Kikuyu people and at first she isn’t too worried, but with increasing reports of oaths being sworn to the Mau Mau and attacks on both Europeans and on Kikuyu who try to resist the movement, she realises how serious the situation is. The Fullsmith farmhouse is not a safe haven either, though; Rachel’s father has a new partner, Sara, who makes no secret of her contempt for the ‘natives’ and who can barely hide her hostility towards Rachel. Turning to her childhood tutor, Michael, for support, Rachel is glad that she still has one true friend left – but, as a Kenyan, Michael is torn between helping the cause of his own people and loyalty to the white people he has lived and worked with for so many years.

The Mau Mau Uprising of 1952 played a significant part in Kenya’s history, but although I had heard of it, I really knew nothing about it – the events leading up to it or what the rebellion itself involved – until reading this book. As you can probably imagine, it’s not pleasant to read about; although the cover may look light and romantic, the story is anything but. This was a harsh and violent time, with people killed for refusing to swear an oath and men, women and children murdered in their own homes or hacked to death with pangas (and I should warn you that there are also some graphic descriptions of the slaughter of animals). The characters in the novel provide us with a range of views and attitudes, from Sara’s racism and prejudice to Rachel’s horror at the brutality but desire to understand. As someone with no prior knowledge of the rebellion, I thought the author did an excellent job of explaining what happened and why, and of trying to show both sides of the story.

Rachel’s personal story is interesting too and again it’s quite dark. When she first returns to Kenya she is full of excitement and nostalgia, but she quickly has to reconcile her happy memories with the reality of the present day – with the violence surrounding her, the distance between herself and her father, and her struggle to find any common ground with Sara. Some horrible things happen to Rachel over the course of the novel, particularly near the end, but she does still have some moments of happiness; she also has a love interest, although I didn’t find their romance very convincing and I felt that this was the one element that let the book down.

Jennifer McVeigh writes beautifully about Kenya, bringing to life the vast landscape, the heat of the sun, the animals and birds. There is a lot to enjoy in this novel even if, due to the subject, it’s not always the easiest of reads. It reminded me at times of Dinah Jefferies’ The Separation, which is about a similar uprising in Malaya, so if you have read that novel I would recommend trying this one too.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.