Book Review: Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

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?

What I Thought:
I was initially asked to be part of the Leopard at the Door blog tour, so was delighted to host a piece by Jennifer McVeigh about her idyllic African honeymoon. By reading that piece, you’ll begin to get some idea of Jennifer’s writing style which brings the landscape and wildlife of Africa vividly to life, and there’s much more of that in the book.

I love the story of how Jennifer came across the events described in Leopard at the Door, which she writes about on her blog – the idea that an elderly woman has kept photographs, news clippings and propaganda materials from a dark time in Kenyan history and lived through it, hoping that it would find a home and a voice is the sort of thing that keep me reading. In Jennifer McVeigh, that story has found an author that does it justice.

As difficult as it must have been to tease a narrative out of a suitcase of seemingly unconnected items, Jennifer has done this brilliantly, crafting a cast of characters who each have very different views on, and investment in, colonialism and all the things that entails. There are views from the British side, and those who have the most to lose if the Kikuyu succeed in bringing about a change and also the view from the native population who suffer the most under the British foot. Even Rachel’s mother – who has passed away before the events of the book – is described so vividly and longingly by Rachel, that she seems almost a living character within the book.

I was not previously aware of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, seeing as my knowledge of African history is shockingly poor, but I found enough historical information in the book to be able to set the scene in my own mind, without it being overwhelmed by facts and figures. It is interesting during further reading to note that, while it must have been a frightening time for white settlers, which comes across well from the book, fewer than 500 settlers were killed. This is in stark contrast to retaliatory attacks, in which thousands of Kikuyu were imprisoned and killed. It’s absolutely true that history depends entirely on perspective!

Although this book was an excellent read, and I do enjoy historical fiction, on some occasions it does make my blood boil. In this instance, Rachel is a young woman who knows her own mind, but events towards the end of the book are a hideous reminder of how far we have come – and how far we still have to go – before women are truly in control of their own fate. I don’t wish to spoil the end of the book, but it is a stark reminder that only half a century ago, a young woman could be completely at the mercy of her own family and have her liberty taken away if she did not toe the line. Thankfully, things have improved in this area!

To find out more about this book, and Jennifer McVeigh’s debut novel, please do take a look at her website. You can also catch up with her on Facebook or Twitter – whichever is your poison!

Leopard at the Door is published by Penguin.

Note: I was sent this book for review purposes. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

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