Rebecca Laurelton is a relief doctor working at the epicenter of an intense civil war in East Africa who clearly endured a violent, traumatic incident and needed some respite. She takes the opportunity to become acquainted with her aunt Julia and her family when Julia invites her to stay at her fabulous estate called The Dhow House, which gave its name to the title of Jean McNeil’s book. It turns out, though, that Rebecca is more than she seems, but then so is her family.
Rebecca’s mother was estranged from her sister Julia, so Rebecca barely knows her. She had never met, Julia’s husband Bill, or her adult children Lucy and Storm. Bill is a farmer cum financier, Lucy is a college student, Storm seems to be drifting between high school and college uncertain what to do, and Julia is a somewhat shallow socialite. They are very wealthy, sheltered behind their gates even though they have lost their farms. But then, as Rebecca’s American friend notes, “There are fortunes to be made off poor people.” They seem very much of the Kenyan Happy Valley type, though transplanted to a coastal resort settlement on the coast of the Indian Ocean in an anonymous African country that is likely Kenya. Rebecca’s work in the north would then be in Somalia, and the paramilitary group Al-Nur would be Al-Shabaab.
The conflict is inching closer to the Dhow House by the day. There is rising tensions in the community, increasing incidents of violence and murder that are reported. Rebecca is attuned to this, because we learn she is more than a doctor, she is also an intelligence asset, reporting what she see to British intelligence. So The Dhow House is rich with all sorts of action adventure espionage elements, but that’s not what it is about.
Rebecca falls in love with her cousin Storm who is fifteen years younger than her. He’s eighteen, physically beautiful, athletic, someone who is enjoying life surfing, going to parties, and trying to figure out what he is going to do. All of them know that they should leave Africa, but in England they would be ordinary people. In Africa they are epic. Yes, this is Happy Valley.
The Dhow House is a strange and unsettling book. McNeil is a beautiful writer. I cannot tell you how many times I stopped to admire an expertly crafted sentence rich with imagery and original, singular metaphors that took my breath away. It’s not just that her metaphors were so very fresh, but they were perfectly apt.
McNeil is writing about the quandary of the white Africans, who have lost their power in an Africa for Africans. This family recognizes that they are mediocre people who are special only because they are in Africa, clinging like the ghosts who won’t leave their home after their time has gone. I wonder why McNeil wrote about these uninteresting people when from her book, it’s clear she is more interested in people like Aisha and Ali than in people like Julia and Bill.
So why didn’t I love it? This is not the kind of book McNeil should be writing. Here is a book full of violence and war and yet I felt not one moment of jeopardy, of tension or fear. There is this all-consuming passion between Rebecca and Storm, and yet I could never figure out why. I really did not care about the plot or the people at all. They were ghosts messing about and ruining what should have been a beautiful book about the birds and landscapes of this coast. The most compelling and interesting character in the book was Aisha, a woman who came to the medical camp.
I confess I did not like Rebecca. She is a ruiner, reckless with other people’s lives. As a doctor with a relief agency, she had no business acting as a spy. That brought jeopardy to her fellow relief workers. As an adult, a thirty-something woman, she had no business having an affair with her eighteen year-old cousin, no matter how reciprocal the attraction. Likewise, she had no business not warning her family that she had seen a leader of Al-Nur who warned her there would be an attack. She repeatedly put others in jeopardy without thought, yet never once did I feel as though she were in real jeopardy, not even when the trauma that happened to her is fully revealed. Perhaps because she withholds herself so completely from life, I can’t care enough to feel her at risk.
The narrative jumped quite a bit and not always with clarity. I would be reading into the third, fourth, or fifth page of a chapter before realizing that there was a jump back in time. This is in part because McNeil is a very oblique writer, avoiding any sort of straightforward narrative. She has internalized the “show, don’t tell” doctrine to the point of obscurantism. I was a quarter into this book and lamenting to my best friend, “I have no idea what this book is about.”
The thing is, I love her prose. When she is writing about birds, about the sky, the water, the trees, I swoon. She should write books like Diane Ackerman, naturalist essays about the world because she sees the world in magical ways.
I received an e-galley from the publisher after entering (and losing) a drawing through Shelf Awareness.