Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh (2017)

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Viking UK edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Jennifer McVeigh’s first novel The Fever Tree (my review is here) so I was eager to read her new novel Leopard at the Door. It has a similar setup, in that it’s central character is a young British woman thrown into turmoil on foreign soil. This time its Rachel, a British woman returning to Kenya, the country of her birth, after years away. Her mother died just after the two of them came back to England, and she was sent to live with relatives while her father stayed in Kenya. Now she returns and finds a new woman in the house with her father, and everything has changed.

Leopard at the Door is set in the early 1950s, and Kenya is experiencing the beginnings of the Mau Mau Uprising (you can read more about this here). For Rachel and her family, this means that their entire way of life in Kenya is threatened, and their relations with the local people are strained. There are local villagers that Rachel supports, and remembers from her childhood – women who knew her mother, and who she has good relationships with. These people are immediately put under suspicion of being allied with the rebellious Mau Mau, and are eventually forced to move from their village. Rachel is devastated, but her father and Sara, the new woman in his life, are adamant that these changes must be made to protect the family and the farm. There is also Michael, the local man who tutored Rachel as a child and who now helps out on the farm. Rachel has a deep affection for him, rooted mostly in her childhood memories and her desire for how things used to be. She uses his workspace in the barn to escape the tension of being in the house with her father and Sara, and looks to him to show her a way out of her situation. But Michael is torn between the struggles of his people, and the white people he has known for so long. The layers of conflict are myriad.

The novel charts Rachel’s conflict between her nostalgia and lasting grief for her mother, and the changes she finds when she returns to Kenya. Rachel feels more distant than ever from her father, and this is expertly exacerbated by Sara’s blatant racism and her aversion to any kind of positive relationship with the Kenyan people. Rachel’s father is a farmer and has lived in Kenya for a long time, and he tries to mediate between Sara and Rachel, and to keep the peace in a country he loves. McVeigh excels at using the domestic drama in this story to explore the wider issues in Kenya in this period, and showcases each point of view fairly.

Sara’s acerbic comments about ‘natives’ and ‘civilisation’ grate against our modern understanding of race and equality, and are in stark contrast to Rachel’s sympathetic view of the country and the Kenyan people. She has a nostalgic and almost idealistic desire for everyone to live in harmony, and her personal feelings direct her actions. At times this seems like the right thing to do, but at others it just seems dangerous. McVeigh perfectly conveys the conflicts and emotions of her eighteen-year-old protagonist and how this plays against the political and familial turmoil in the novel. The fact that the Mau Mau Uprising really happened means that it must be handled sensitively, and I think McVeigh strikes the right tone – she manages to convey the fear and anger on both sides, as well as the motivations and emotions behind their actions.

The cover of this novel makes it look more romantic than anything else, and there is a romance in there, but it’s more than that. Leopard at the Door is Rachel’s story, with its tragedies and triumphs, and is a wonderful exploration of the struggle of reconciling life with how it used to be, and how it is now. Nostalgia is at once glorious, and dangerous. This novel expertly pitches familial drama against political and colonial issues, along with the difficulties of growing up and finding what you believe in. It’s an enjoyable and engaging read, and McVeigh’s writing is as beautiful as always. I loved Leopard at the Door, and look forward to her next novel!

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Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK, in July 2017. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

Back soon!

Hello dear readers, you may have notice that there have not been any new posts here for a while – and I must apologise for that. Getting married took over my life, and I have just returned from our two-week honeymoon – and life hasn’t got any less busy! I am still reading away, and making notes for reviews, but I just haven’t organised myself in the last few weeks to post reviews. BUT there are some in the works and I plan to return to posting next week. Upcoming reviews include:

  • The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  • Labyrinths by Catrine Clay (a biography of Emma Jung)
  • Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh (brand new second novel from an author I love, out in July)
  • By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

I’m still reading all your lovely blogs, and am still over on Twitter @lizzi_risch (my new name!), and I will back to reviewing next week.

Happy reading!

Top 5 Books for Spring!

Spring is (kind of) in the air, and I at least am starting to long for the warmer weather, no need for a big coat, sun shining down… and what better way to embrace the new (slightly) warmer weather with an appropriate book?

(image: thedailydosage.com)
(image: thedailydosage.com)

Yes, it has the wrong season in the title, but Summer Crossing is perfect for pretty much any season. An early, imperfect novel of Capote’s, it is full of youth and desperation, love, and the hope for a better life. Having read it twice now I can vouch for the beauty and compassion underneath the shallow characters and the now-typical setting. It is flawed, but brilliant.

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(image: goodreads.com)

Another summery book that will get you in the mood for Spring is Tigers in Red Weather. This was a bit of a sensation when it was published in 2012, and author Liza Klausmann is set to be back in the spotlight this year with the publication of her second novel, Villa America. Tigers is a very impressive debut, both atmospheric, psychological, and vividly real. And look at the amazing cover!

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(image: goodreads.com)

I read The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield at university, for a course about modernism and the concept of time, and the title story in particular has stuck with me. It is a beautiful haze of family, food, and summer – it captures perfectly how the smallest things can change a mood or set a scene. And it is of course about the fluidity of time and the strangeness of life. The other stories in this volume are just as beautiful.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh has an air of the romantic epic about it, with heroine Frances travelling to South Africa and dealing with a volatile love triangle. But it is also the story of her daily struggles and adaptation to a new life in a new country. McVeigh’s writing is vivid and real, and the book is pure escapism. I loved it.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

The recent film adaptation of Wild by Cheryl Strayed has reminded me how excellent the book is. It is a perfect combination of memoir and travelogue, with Strayed being unaware of delve into her past, while celebrating the present and the future. I also loved hearing about the Pacific Crest Trail and what it was like to do it (it even made me wish I could). I haven’t seen the film yet, and would urge you to read the book first!

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

What will you be reading for Spring?

Best of 2012: The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

The Fever Tree is the debut novel from author Jennifer McVeigh, and I simply had to include it in my Best of 2012 series. I came across the book at the Penguin Bloggers Night back in March, when Jennifer read from the novel; I was also lucky enough to speak to her at the event and hear more about the book before reading it. Straight away I knew I would like the novel and enjoy reading it.

March 2012 paperback cover. Image: penguin.co.uk
Viking March 2012 paperback cover. Image: penguin.co.uk
Penguin January 2013 paperback cover. Image: penguin.co.uk
Penguin January 2013 paperback cover. Image: penguin.co.uk

19th century London. Frances Irvine is left penniless after her father’s death, and has only two options for the future – to become a nanny to her squabbling young cousins in their tiny house up North, or travel to South Africa to marry her cousin Edwin, a doctor. She chooses Edwin and South Africa. Through her lengthy voyage and rather eventful arrival in South Africa, Frances experiences prejudice, sexism, disease, poverty, and great unhappiness. Victorian socioeconomic issues are explored throughout The Fever Tree, as well as different forms of love and desire.

Edwin and Frances live in a cottage on a farm in the middle of the veldt – essentially a dry wasteland that is almost a desert. The tree of the title stands next to the cottage, and it becomes a symbol of life overcoming hardship throughout the story. The landscape is also the subject of intense and evocative description by McVeigh that is beautiful and heartbreaking. The ship on Frances’ voyage, Cape Town, the veldt, and the smallpox-ridden town of Kimberley are all described with such vivid intensity that they almost become characters in themselves.

Jennifer McVeigh. Image: jennifermcveigh.co.uk
Jennifer McVeigh. Image: jennifermcveigh.co.uk

Frances is also a vivid creation. We follow her through such upheaval and emotional changes that you cannot help but sympathise and warm to her as a character, even when she is at times naive. Nine months after reading this novel I still remember exactly how I felt as I followed Frances through her hardships and hopelessness, all the way to the story’s conclusion. I simply loved this book.

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The Fever Tree was published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK, in March 2012. You can read my original review here.

55 Reading Questions

I saw these questions on Follow The Thread, and liked the way they approached reading, and the fact they were just for bloggers – so I thought I’d give them a go!

1. Favourite childhood book?

When I was very young it was The Worst Witch, and then Lord of the Flies when I was slightly older. That was the book that made me really love literature.

2. What are you reading right now? 

The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams. Just started and already really enjoying it. Lots to discover. I also just received a copy of The Forbidden by F. R. Tallis, so I’m going to start that as well.

3. What books do you have on request at the library? 

None.

4. Bad book habit? 

Buying/requesting too many books in one go and taking ages to read them all.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library? 

Nothing. My local library is very small and doesn’t have much from this century that isn’t Twilight.

6. Do you have an e-reader? 

No. My boyfriend told me that my dad asked him last Christmas whether I would like a Kindle – thank god he said no! I like the idea of them, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to use one.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once? 

I try to read two books at once to save time, I think that’s all I can manage. Sometimes though it’s nice to concentrate on one book at a time so you can devote yourself to it and get the most out of it.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

If anything I’m more cautious about which books I read. I consider how I might be able to write about a book, whether the readers of my blog will find it interesting. That said, I won’t read something I don’t want to just because it’s new or popular.

9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far)? 

Definitely The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. It just had so many things that were wrong with it.

10. Favourite book you’ve read this year? 

Probably Henry and June by Anais Nin, or The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

I like to try new things, so maybe every few books I’ll try something different.

 12. What is your reading comfort zone?

Somewhere between Jane Austen and Donna Tartt.

13. Can you read on the bus? 

Not at all, I get car sick if I read on the bus or in the car, though I can usually read on the train.

14. Favourite place to read? 

The sofa or an armchair. I find it uncomfortable to read at a table or in bed, sadly.

15. What is your policy on book lending? 

I’m happy to lend books to people I know will read them, take care of them, and return them promptly. I’m a bit fussy.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books? 

I used to fold over pages and I used to refuse to break spines – now I use book marks and like breaking the spines!

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books? 

No. I used to underline passages, but that got a bit pointless. Now I’ll sometimes pop in a post-it or something to mark out quotes I might use for a review.

18. Not even with text books? 

At uni I would write in textbooks but as I’m no longer a student I don’t use textbooks anymore.

19. What is your favourite language to read in? 

English. I don’t know any other languages.

20. What makes you love a book? 

Engaging, believable characters; genuinely artful writing; a sense of pace and destination; a display of intelligence, emotion and empathy on the part of the author; subtlety; genuine feeling and sincerity.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book? 

I particularly recommend books that have moved me or that I related to in some way. I find books quite emotional so there has to be some kind of connection. I will also recommend something that is just really beautifully written.

22. Favourite genre? 

Sounds like a cop out to say literary fiction, but it really is my favourite. I like a bit of thriller and history too.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)? 

Historical biography.

24. Favourite biography? 

I really loved Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy. It read like a novel and was really detailed, but not so much that you got bored.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book? 

No. I think they’re bullshit.

26. Favourite cookbook? 

I’m not much of a cook. The only one I own is The Big Book of One Pot Meals my mum gave to me.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)? 

I have very mixed feelings about the word ‘inspirational’ but I guess it would be Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Her life story is very dramatic, but I really related to her feelings about books and reading.

28. Favorite reading snack? 

I don’t really eat when I’m reading. I love food, so it distracts me! I like a nice cup of tea instead.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience. 

It was a while ago now, but The Lovely Bones wasn’t as good as the hype suggested. The whole time I was reading it I was waiting for the good bit to begin. And even though I was given a copy for my birthday, I just could not bring myself to read The Tiger’s Wife. The hype did not convince me.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book? 

It depends – critics in newspapers etc often review things long before I read them, so then I forget what they said; with other bloggers, reviews are so personal that I will often disagree on small points.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews? 

I have no problem with it really. I’m not going to be outright rude about something that the author has worked hard on, but I am going to be honest. If a book is sent to me by a publisher it’s a little harder to say you really didn’t like something, but I still try to be honest to my opinion.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose? 

French, German or Russian – the three languages I wish I spoke!

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read? 

Probably Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. He has a reputation as some sort of genius and there is so much respect and reverence for the Faust/Faustus story. His style was very dense and longwinded, but after 50 or so pages it got a lot easier.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin? 

The Kindly Ones by Jonathon Littell. I did a module on Literatures of the Holocaust at uni and read so many fantastic books. My boyfriend read The Kindly Ones after discovering it through the course, and I bought a copy, but I’m scared of it. It’s HUGE and I know it will take me ages to read and be very emotional. I desperately want to read it though.

35. Favourite poet? 

John Keats every time. Though I also love Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time? 

None – my local library isn’t very good and I never think to go. Bad, I know.

37. How often have you returned books to the library unread?

Never. I’d have to get them out first.

38. Favourite fictional character? 

Anne Elliot from Persuasion; Elinor from Sense and Sensibility; Richard from The Secret History; and Tintin.

39. Favourite fictional villain? 

‘Villain’ makes me think of Disney films. In that case, Ursula from ‘The Little Mermaid’. From literature, Jack in Lord of the Flies. Absolutely brilliant.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation? 

Something that isn’t depressing or sad. Probably an Austen I haven’t read yet.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading

Two or three weeks. If I get caught up in work or just can’t decide what to read, it can take me a while to choose my next book.

 42. Name a book that you could/would not finish. 

I abandoned Nicholas and Alexandra halfway through because it was dragging terribly, but I would like to finish it one day.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading? 

The dog, the fridge or my phone.

 44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel? 

It’s a TV series, but ‘Game of Thrones‘ has been really excellent.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation? 

The Keira Knightley version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Absolute travesty.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time? 

At least £30.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it? 

I read the blurb, the reviews at the front, the first couple of pages, to try and get a feel for the story.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through? 

Boredom mostly. If it’s dragging and there’s been no development, or if the writing is really bad, I’ll give up – especially if it’s really long. If it’s short I might just read it to the end for the sake of it.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized? 

I used to alphabetise them, but this was too much hassle. Now they go in the bookshelf anywhere they’ll fit!

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them? 

I always keep books. I would only give away a book if I hadn’t enjoyed it.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding? 

There are some books that I have absolutely no desire to read, like 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter… I don’t care if everyone thinks they’re great, they don’t appeal to me.

52. Name a book that made you angry

The Cellist of Sarajevo was very disappointing, and it had a ‘Richard & Judy Book Club’ logo on the front – that annoyed me. Mostly it would be anything that was supposed to be great but was a load of rubbish.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did? 

A Game of Thrones. I’ve never read much fantasy and was worried I wouldn’t like it as so many people I knew did like it; but I really enjoyed it! Great characters, great writing, an exciting plot – though there are some very cringy sex scenes.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t? 

Wish Her Safe At Home by Stephen Benatar. I’d heard a lot of good things and the premise appealed to me, but it didn’t quite work.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading? 

Tintin! I grew up reading it and still really love it.

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All book title links lead to GoodReads or my reviews. All titles widely available.

Thanks to David at Follow the Thread for answering these questions first, and to other bloggers: I would love to read your answers too!


The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

March 2012 paperback cover. Image: penguin.co.uk
March 2012 paperback cover. Image: penguin.co.uk

I acquired my slightly enormous paperback early copy of this book from the Penguin Bloggers Night (I will stop going on about that eventually) and it was one I was particularly eager to read. Having enjoyed Jennifer McVeigh’s reading and having chatted with her at the event, I had high expectations for The Fever Tree. Mostly this was because it was set in a world I know nothing about but that appealed to me (in a novel) – 19th century South Africa, a country afflicted with smallpox and plagued by the greed and corruption surrounding the diamond mines. McVeigh carried out extensive research into the lives of those involved in the mining and apparently the initial idea for the book came from her discovery in the British Library of the diary of a young doctor in South Africa. This intense research undoubtedly pays off, making the book as a whole vivid and engaging; but more of that in a moment.

The story follows Frances Irvine, a young woman left orphaned and penniless when her father dies. He was a successful businessman, but his bad investments in new railroads mean that Frances is left with nothing. She has suffered all her life from her dead mother’s family discriminating against her Irishness (if you’re Irish, be prepared to be insulted by these charming characters). After her father’s death, and several unexpected events, she is left with two choices – become a governess to her cousins and share a small, dingy house with them and her aunt in the industrial north (a memory of the foul outdoor toilet is enough to turn her against this) or marriage to distant cousin Edwin Matthews, who is a doctor and lives in South Africa. He used to visit when they were children and she has never liked him; but her stern, cruel aunt with her rampant children and tiny, dirty house is a far worse fate.

The voyage to South Africa is both romantic and tense. Her emigration (deemed to be the fate of poor, lowly, possibly criminal, people) garners even more disdaining looks, but she makes friends with her roommates and spends her days lusting after the handsome and intriguing William Westbrook. This is the romantic part. The tense part comprises the prejudice of the first class passengers, with whom she is made to dine at William’s well-intended insistence, and her fears about her arrival in South Africa. She fears she will be lonely, that her relationship with Edwin will not develop well, and that they will have no money. She crosses her fingers, almost get swept overboard, shares a few illicit moments, vomits quite  a few times, and waits to arrive in her new home.

While the section on the voyage to South Africa is excellent, the book gets even better after Frances arrives in her frankly terrifying new home. Better for the reader, that is – for Frances, things just seem to go from bad to worse. She waits in Cape Town for William, but is forced to leave for her to-be-marital home after he delays their meeting. She is already disheartened by this when she arrives at the small cottage, situated in the middle of what is almost a desert. The veldt is wide, flat, dry and humid. Sandstorms happen sporadically, it never rains, and nothing grows; and yet, their cottage is located on what is technically a farm. Really. It is impossible to see how it produces anything. Edwin arrives and they are married, quietly and without much celebration.  From here Frances’ experience of life in South Africa becomes increasingly dramatic and based around her physical and psychological – and quite fundamental – reactions to the sufferings that befall her. McVeigh’s writing is vivid and sensual, with descriptions of landscape and physical experience being particularly potent. Frances is in some ways naive and blindly optimistic, but McVeigh’s skills as a writer stop her from becoming annoying. Instead we sympathise with her desperation and disappointment, and suffer with her as her situation changes, worsens, improves, worsens again and eventually concludes (no, I’m not going to tell you how).

The Fever Tree has already been described as cinematic, and this is certainly true. Personally I think it would make a brilliant romantic drama, with the actress in Frances’ role being key to its success. The intense focus on her personal experience would mean that any shortcomings in the actress’ performance would have a greatly detrimental effect on the film as a whole. Likewise the depiction of the veldt and later the misery of life in Kimberley would be key – McVeigh describes these so vividly that they are almost characters in themselves. A lot of this story is about the feeling one gets from a situation or place, something that cannot be spoken or spelled out but garnered in a more subtle way from ongoing descriptions or visuals. The end of the story has echoes of Jane Eyre in terms of structure and final resolution, and the story as a whole is apparently of a similar type to Love in a Time of Cholera (I haven’t read the latter, but have been informed of this fact by one who has) – dramatic, romantic, but not sensationalist or too melodramatic. There are elements of melodrama in the landscapes and Frances’ ill health, but like her naive behaviour they are saved by McVeigh’s brilliant writing. Still the melodrama might put some people off but it won’t if you at all like 19th century literature as the tone here is quite similar. In fact, this could easily be a Victorian novel, with its brave heroine, mysterious suitors and sweeping landscapes. No doubt fans of Victorian literature will enjoy it, but anyone else may as well. Not bad at all for a debut novel.

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Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, in March 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.