Harlequin MIRA, $15.95, ISBN 978-0-7783-1439-4
Historical Fiction, 2013
I’ve heard good things about Deanna Raybourn – someone told me that if I loved the works by Judith Ivory, I’d adore this author’s books – but I wasn’t keen on jumping into a historical mystery series. I filed the author’s name away under “Maybe” until I heard that she was releasing this book. It’s not part of a series as far as I can tell, so I’m sold.
A Spear of Summer Grass has some romance, but it isn’t a romance novel as much as it is a story of a woman’s African adventures in the 1920s. Delilah Drummond is infamous because of the string of mostly dead ex-husbands she’s left in her wake on top of her frequently scandalous behavior. When her latest husband committed suicide – supposedly because she wanted to divorce him – and Delilah ends up fighting over the ownership of some jewels with his family, the poor dear finds herself exiled to a run-down holding in Kenya with only her cousin Dora for company. Fortunately, Africa, as we all know, is the place to be for white people with issues to sort themselves out by tunneling through a cornucopia of sweaty sex, magnificent sunrises, and charitable acts to hapless black people, to a background of mystic chants by the local friendly witch doctor over the carcasses of a few dead lions (shot because they threatened the lives of those poor black people, of course – what would they do without white people, eh?).
Oh, and there’s Ryder White. He’s that super virile amazing Great White Hunter fellow who has a permanent stubble, a twenty-inch dong that drives every woman in town insensate with bliss, and a wounded heart so big that several signs (“Pork me, I’m sexy-tortured!”, “You’re the only woman who understands me, so love me!”, “Don’t I look like Robert Redford?”, et cetera) can be planted all over it. He of course becomes the darling of Delilah’s feelings, although he expresses his love through money, anguished threat of rape (he’s been hurt before by love, so he should be excused), and lots of brooding angry gaze. I bet you’re shocked to hear that he has his own plane and everything. Because every story of white people in Africa needs a conservationist, he’s the resident balancer of the ecosystem, killing only animals that need to be killed for being a menace to people, as well as the protector of hapless Zulu, Kikuyu, and Masai people who would have floundered without his bicep-tacular hero complex and his almighty wang (that’s for the ladies only, though).
Well, what do I expect from a story where the two main characters have porn star names?
The thing about this story, though, is that it’s set in the 1920s, a time when the White Man’s Burden is still commonly accepted by white colonials as a way of life. It’s very easy to get offended by the racism in this story, but at the same time, the racism is how things were back in the old days. It’s the same with the way Delilah and a few other women view domestic abuse: while they don’t condone it, they always believe that the woman incited the husband to violence because she isn’t treating him the way a wife should. Again, it’s such is a popular belief back in those days, and it’s still a commonly held perception among some people even today. The poor author can’t win either way – if she creates a story with modern day liberals introducing concepts that are unorthodox for those days, she’d end up with an unbelievable tale, but if she goes the other way, she’d offend people.
What the author does here is to try to have her cake and eat it too. Delilah has some philosophy and principles that would be very politically incorrect today, but her political incorrectness rarely extends beyond her thoughts. She believes that the Africans are primitive and inferior compared to white people, but when it comes to her actions, she doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into improving the lot of the natives who depend on her for medical aid and jobs. In fact, she treats her cousin far worse than the natives – Dora does the bulk of the housework, but Delilah ignores that woman, takes her for granted, or openly points out Dora’s flaws to that woman. She’d risk everything for a native, but I don’t think she’d spit on Dora even if that woman were on fire.
In fact, one of my disappointments with this story is how Delilah turns out to be so… conventional… once she arrives in Africa. I like that unusual heroine who doesn’t give a damn that her sexual promiscuity is creating a lot of talk. Once she’s in Africa – and yes, Africa is treated here as a single homogenous country with sunsets, doggedly loyal black people, and virile white men – she turns into a more familiar heroine who fixes things up and finds love while discovering bits and pieces of herself that she once refused to believe exist.
Since this story is told from Delilah’s point of view, Ryder remains a cliché of that Great White Hunter made as politically correct as possible for modern day consumption. He’s what it says on the box. Like Delilah, his political incorrectness is all talk. His actions are more in line with what we consider acceptable these days: he cares about women who get whacked by their husbands, the poor natives, and the balance of the ecosystem.
You may be wondering about the rating for this book given how I haven’t said nice things about this book so far. Well, as hokey as I find the story to be, I can’t stop reading the book. Even when she’s morphed into a more conventional heroine, Delilah remains a fascinating character. Delilah knows how to manipulate men using her sexuality, and yet, her desire to numb her pain, which she’d convinced is already locked up in her heart, through sex controls her just as much. Delilah’s determination to deny her personal damage makes that damage more raw and painful to behold, and the author unwraps the complicated layers of Delilah’s personality in a manner that I find captivating.
Also, the narrative is beautiful, almost poetic at places, to read even if often the author is just going through the same old “white person finds oneself while becoming an integral part of the landscape as a broken messiah” tropes. I’m not offended by all this, by the way, as I’ve read enough of such tropes going back to H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Also, because this is a story set in colonial days, it’s not fair to expect the author to gloss over things that would be offensive to many people today. I’d rather have this story than a tale of liberal Greenpeace zealots transplanted into the 1920s to save the black people and change the white people. At the same time, I can understand why others may choose to get offended by this story. It’s hard not to, and I don’t expect people to accept everything in the name of historical authenticity.
At the end of the day, I find this a very absorbing read, although it has its share of noticeable flaws such as how everything in the last few chapters happen at an accelerated pace and how the author chooses to reveal aspects of Delilah in suspiciously convenient timing. Delilah reveals that she volunteered as a nurse during the first World War, for example, just as she needs to tend to the natives’ wounds and such. The White Man’s Burden, of course, remains the great white elephant in the room, although I personally accept it as an integral part of the story that makes it believable. At any rate, I have a good time reading this book, but it’s going to a polarizing read with some hot button issues, so approach this one with some degree of caution.