After six years in England, Rachel has returned to Kenya and the farm where she spent her childhood, but the beloved home she’d longed for is much changed. Her father’s new companion—a strange, intolerant woman—has taken over the household. The political climate in the country grows more unsettled by the day and is approaching the boiling point. And looming over them all is the threat of the Mau Mau, a secret society intent on uniting the native Kenyans and overthrowing the whites.
As Rachel struggles to find her place in her home and her country, she initiates a covert relationship, one that will demand from her a gross act of betrayal. One man knows her secret, and he has made it clear how she can buy his silence. But she knows something of her own, something she has never told anyone. And her knowledge brings her power.
Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh begins with Rachel’s return to Kenya. Rachel hasn’t been around since her mother died about six years before. Coming back, she quickly realizes that Kenya is not what it used to be. The country is undergoing some changes which have caused insecurity. The land is hostile and even more so when Rachel finds that her father has a new woman in his house.
I was really excited when I received an ARC of this book. I have read plenty of books set in colonial era. My favorite ones were by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. I was curious about this story for various reasons. First of all, I haven’t read any books set in the period that are narrated from the POV of a settler. Secondly, the book mentions Mau Mau. The world has a negative perception about this rebel group. I know that they committed all sorts of atrocities against white settlers and their Kenyan supporters. However, for most Kenyans, the rebels are referred to as heroes. To date, we have monuments to celebrate and honor them such as the Dedan Kimathi statute at the heart of Nairobi. The British government was not going to give Kenya independence. Dialogue had failed and so the only way to get freedom was through an armed struggle and so young men went into the forests and planned their attacks, many sacrificed their lives for their countries. I was curious about the representation of the group in this book. Would the author demonize them or give the Mau Mau a fair representation? Lastly, one of the MCs in this book was Kikuyu. Honestly, that is something that I never imagined that I would ever see in an ARC. Kikuyu is one of the 42 ethnic groups in Kenya and that is my community.
As you can already tell, I had high expectations with this book. I loved the setting. I think the author did a fantastic job in portraying colonial Kenya. She described the setting in an accurate, vivid manner. The lack of roads was interesting to read about. It made me think about how we take things for granted. There was a time when a trip that now takes two hours used to take a day. I also liked the description of the wild in the ranches. Before the government established parks, animals used to roam free in Kenya and I liked how the author was able to bring that aspect into the story. The author had also really researched Kenya. Most of the places that are mentioned in the book still exist like the Mathari mental hospital and the towns such as Nakuru, Mombasa and Nairobi.
The MC was a likeable character. I liked how Rachel was able to fit into the new environment. She got along well with the Kikuyus on the ranch. She adapted to the environment and this could be seen in little things that she did like fishing. On the other hand, I really disliked Sara. I can’t talk much about her but let me just say, she really got on my nerves. Her treatment of the Africans was terrible. It reminded me of all the ugly, racist stories that I have heard about the era. And if Sara was terrible, then Steven Lockhart was a disgusting human being. He made my skin crawl. There are other characters that stood out such as Michael, the Kikuyu who befriended Rachel. I liked his background story. Other minor characters that were memorable include Logan, Mungai, Njeri and Kihika. Rachel’s dad was one of the MCs though his presence was not felt as much as the others. In short, the characters were very well crafted.
Of course I have to mention the Mau Mau. This group was described as ruthless. They killed and forcefully administered oaths of loyalty. The group was a character in the book. What I liked about their representation was the fact that it was balanced and depicted reality. The book had characters in support and against the secret society. I also like that there were characters that supported the struggle but not everything that was done by the group. It made me smile when I saw references of Dedan Kimathi and Jomo Kenyatta. I just loved how realistic the story-line was.
This book was quite a joy to read. The author took me to the colonial era and made me reminiscent of stories of the past. It reminded me of my mother’s story about the night of independence when Kenya’s flag was raised on Mount Kenya. The author managed to tell the story in such a way that the era came alive. My only issue with the story was the use of local language. As a speaker of both Swahili and Kikuyu, some words and phrases felt off to me. For instance; some dogs were referred to as shenzis. That cracked me up. Shenzi is Swahili for idiot so I am not sure how that fits with dogs really but anyway, perhaps these were phrases that were used before my time. Shenzi though… lol.
Another thing that I really liked was the tension in the book. The book made me feel nervous. I was terrified of the imminent attack by the MauMau. With every news report, I wondered when it would happen and I feared for some of the characters. The tension kept me anxiously turning pages. I imagined the MauMau from the POV of the settlers and I was terrified. This was a suspenseful, engaging read with very memorable characters. If you are interested in historical fiction set in Africa then I definitely recommend Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh. Lovers of Kenyan literature will also enjoy it. If you read this book, let me know, I would love to discuss it with you.