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?
Oh there is so much I wish to say about this absolutely fantastic book that I'm not quite sure from where to start this review. I finished it yesterday and I'm still processing the strong cocktail of emotions I experienced as I was reading it.
I love historical fiction as I always learn a great deal of things and historical facts I didn't know about. I have never read a book based in Africa, so this was not just another book for me, it was a fountain of knowledge and information about Kenya and its history.
This book is set in the 1950s when Kenya was under British rule. At the time England saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth amid great joy and celebrations, however, it was a time of major upheavals for the people of Kenya and the British settlers who owned land and lived there. War and violence raged and tore through the country leaving countless victims in their wake.
Rachel Fullsmith returns home to her father in Kenya after six long years spent in a boarding school in England longing for her father and her childhood farm. She hopes everything is still as she has left it before she was sent to England following her mother's death, but on her return she finds a country on the brink of war, its peace threatened by the uprising of the Mau Mau, a secret society whose ever increasing members take oaths to kill European settlers and throw them off their farms.
At home Rachel finds that her father is a changed man. He now has a new woman and her son living with him. Sara has taken over her mother's place, but she couldn't be more different. She is a cold woman who immediately shows her resentment at Rachel's arrival. She has already set her rules at home, changed everything and erased any evidence of Rachel's mother's existence. Upon arrival Rachel feels a complete stranger in the one place she had hoped she could feel at home.
Back home Rachel's memories start to unravel and she begins to relive her past when she was young living here with her parents and the natives who lived and worked on her father's farm and land. These childhood memories are not all beautiful. She has lived through some traumatic experiences as a child, experiences that have now resurfaced to haunt her. She was born here and considers the natives as her extended family and friends. But as horrific news of violence against European settlers and forceful retaliation by the British army reach the farm daily, Rachel knows that her and her family's lives are in mortal danger. Their isolated farm becomes even more isolated. The sense of being under siege grows every day and staying outside in the dark could prove fatal. Now no one can be trusted, but when love comes knocking on her door, what should Rachel do?
Okay, this must be one of the most beautiful books I've read in a long while. It is a well-researched, brilliantly written account that expertly weaves fact with fiction, bringing history back to life in high definition. It clearly shows the author's love for Kenya and her experience in the country. It is a delight to the mind's eye, but also tense and terrifying. I'm just glad I was not in Kenya at the time!
Thanks to the author's beautiful prose and vivid descriptions, I could feel the pulse of Africa beating with every page I turned. In this book Africa bursts with life and colour. I could clearly imagine the vast green plains of Kenya teeming with wildlife: elephants, impala, jackals, giraffes, lions, leopards and multitudes of African birds. The acacia trees dotted here and there providing isolated pools of shade, a respite from the harsh baking sun. I could almost feel the red, dry mud under my bare feet. The author also gives a clear sense of the vastness of the land, the distances travelled by Rachel to reach her father's farm from the port at Mombasa or to simply reach a neighbouring farm.
As the violence escalates I could feel the tension intensifying with every page. It's like a grey cloud advancing and darkening a beautiful sunny day. I knew that danger was lurking just right behind the corner and death could strike at any moment. I could feel the tight, claustrophobic fear that descends on the farm and I could imagine the surrounding fields and forests swarming with Mau Mau rebels, ready to attack.
To improve the readers' perception of actually being in Kenya, the author uses a handful of basic words in Swahili throughout the book. I wasn't expecting to learn some Swahili vacabulary haha! But don't worry, you get the meaning of what's being said quite easily from the sense of the sentence and if that's not enough the author has included a glossary of these words at the end of the book.
I was impressed by both the descriptive and historical detail the author employs in bringing this book's story to life, giving the reader a very realistic experience of the setting and the unfolding drama. To know that most of the book is based on true events is simply terrifying!
This was my first Jennifer McVeigh book and I'll certainly be looking for other work by this brilliant author. I'm delighted to have been given the opportunity to read and review this book so I'm especially grateful to Elke Desanghere of Penguin Random House UK for sending me a copy. I'm sure that historical fiction lovers like me will revel in this book. I LOVED it and would highly recommend it!
Jennifer McVeigh graduated from Oxford University in 2002. She went on to work in film and publishing, before leaving her day job to do an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.
She has travelled in wilderness areas of East Africa and Southern Africa, often in off-road vehicles, driving and camping along the way. The Fever Tree was a Richard & Judy Bookclub Pick. Leopard at the Door will be published by Penguin on 13th July 2017.
Learn more at www.jennifermcveigh.com
Or connect with Jennifer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/McVeighAuthor