Tuesday 6 June 2017

Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

Published by Penguin on May 19, 2017

Leopard at the Door is Jennifer McVeigh’s second novel, following The Fever Tree which was published quite a few years ago. I’ve not read Jennifer’s debut, but the quote on the cover of Leopard at the Door by the impeccable Dinah Jefferies definitely captured my interest and I must say that I am so glad I picked up this book as it was beautifully written and very compelling.

The book is set in 1950s Kenya, around the time of the Mau Mau uprising. This is something I knew little about before but the author had me utterly fascinated with what takes place in this book. At the beginning of the book, we meet Rachel, who at eighteen years old is returning home from her time in a boarding school in England, but home is not the place it once was. Everything seems to have changed. Her dad has moved another woman into her now passed away mother’s bed. The people have changed. Sara, her dad’s new partner, is unwelcoming and difficult to get along with. Rachel doesn’t even get her old bedroom back. That is, however, the least of her problems as life in Mombasa has taken a turn with unrest and racism looming over the place she once loved to call home. I could sense Rachel’s devastation over how everything had changed and feel the unease she felt at how life in Mombasa was now.

I absolutely loved the way the author details everything so vividly and builds such a strong picture of every setting, every emotion and every action in this book. The writing is honestly so beautiful and mesmerising that I found myself fully in the grasp of the author without even realising how quickly I was making my way to the end of the book. Jennifer McVeigh paints such a bold picture of Mombasa right from moment Rachel returns there. I could imagine the place so clearly in my mind, not just how it looked but the atmosphere, the weather, the colours, the animals and the scents. My favourite thing about historical fiction is when an author can transport you into an entirely different place and time, and the way the author does this in Leopard at the Door feels evocative and effortless.

One thing in particular that I enjoyed about this book was how it was just as much a coming-of-age novel as it was a glorious piece of historical fiction. Whilst I was taken by the rich descriptions of the time and place, and the unsettled feelings brought across by the Mau Mau uprising, I was even more intrigued by Rachel’s story – her secrets and her forbidden feelings and the relationship with her father, which has never been the same since her mum died. I really felt for Rachel a lot through this book. Life has never been the same for her since her mum died and you can tell it won’t be again. She has been through a lot, but once she’s back in Mombasa you realise that there is still so much for her to face. But she is a strong character and one you can believe in.

I found Leopard at the Door to be an absolutely stunning read with a powerful story very difficult to forget. The tension in Leopard at the Door is extremely heavy and the political unrest is raw and unnerving. Most of the time I didn’t really know what to expect next and feeling like that had me very much in anticipation of what was to follow and the way the author delivers every moment doesn’t disappoint. It’s an incredibly thought-provoking book with so many talking points I could go on all day. It’s definitely a book you need to get your friends to read too so you can discuss it further. I was mesmerised all the way through and it took me quite a bit of time before I was ready to pick up another book and leave this story behind. I’m still not quite sure I have…

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