Title: Leopard at the Door
Author: Jennifer McVeigh
Publisher: GP Putnam's Sons
It is 1952, and 18-year-old Englishwoman Rachel Fullsmith is returning to Kisima, Kenya, the land she considers home, after an absence of 6 years. Much has changed during that time. Things are not the same at her father’s farm, under the cruel rule of her spineless father’s mistress, Sara.
Meanwhile, a new society, the Mau Mau, has emerged in Kenya, with the goal of uniting the Kikuyu and overthrowing the whites. At the beginning, Mau Mau assault local people who refuse to take their oath of violence. Then the situation escalates, and Europeans are added to the toll.
But the violence meted out by the British is even more vicious. It reminds Rachel of her uncle’s bacon factory, the pigs mercilessly slaughtered so Europeans can get bacon.
In many ways, Rachel too has changed. As a child, she had witnessed a horrible crime, the murder of a Kenyan activist by Steven Lockhart, the District Officer. It was a day when the workers at her uncle’s bacon factory were on strike, the day on which she received the news of her mother’s death.
It is a day when her life is altered, because her grandmother, deftly untying the elaborate knot that links a parent to his child, had insisted that Rachel be sent to live in England.
Returning to Kenya, Rachel meets Michael, an educated Kikuyu once hired by her mother to home-school her. He now works in her father’s garage. Rachel’s feelings for Michael are at first vague, but it is clear she wants something more from him.
Rachel slips into the caring role that her mother had assumed vis-à-vis the Kikuyu, unlike the insensitivity of Sara. The action earns the amusement of Michael and the derision of Sara. Sara calls Rachel a sentimentalist and Michael accuses her of turning out good little missionary children.
Sara, a cruel woman, treats the Africans badly, seeing the white race as superior. Ordering the Kikuyu out of their homes to the reserves, miles away, she tells Rachel, The labor can’t simply exist here as a picaresque backdrop to your childhood memories.
Rachel’s feelings for Michael intensify, and she becomes involved with him. The descriptions of sex are so real and painful. Desire is like pain. I feel as though the surface of my skin has been peeled off. Every part of me is raw to his touch.
Being with Michael gives her strength as if He will solder all my edges and absorb me into him.
As though Michael has carved himself in my flesh and left him unwhole.
Michael opens a new world for her. He makes her see the true meaning of imperialism. In the old schools, Kenya was a black man’s country. Now they are telling children that Kenya was virtually uninhabited, before the Europeans discovered it.
She is not sure of Michael’s politics, whether he supports the Mau Mau or not. But her feelings for him cause her to be sympathetic towards him. By not implicating Michael for his role in the strike six years ago, Rachel becomes unwittingly embroiled in the politics, knowing that Michael has taken the oath.
The relationship with Michael is seen as a betrayal and the situation becomes dangerous for Rachel, forcing her to take a stand. But there can be no shared future for them. As Michael tells her, There is no room in either of our cultures for people who cross over and The ground is shifting – it leaves no room for us.
Michael, like other Kenyans, longs for freedom. As a Kikuyu woman tells her, We cannot be both Kikuyu and British. But the British term them terrorists, refusing to see their political motivation.
When Lockhart visits the home, Rachel remembers the horrors of the past. Lockhart, a very powerful bully, takes perverse pleasure in troubling the Kikuyu. He also assaults Rachel sexually almost repeatedly, demanding his price in return for his silence on her relationship with Michael. But she cannot bring herself to tell her father, who is lost to her, putty in Sara’s hands.
Slowly she finds herself lying to Lockhart, despite knowing the danger, letting him know what true Christianity is.
Whoever says he is in the light and does not love his brother is still in darkness.
She realizes that If he is the spokesman for empire, then empire is an ugly, dissolute thing…Listening to him is like listening to the clean, efficient turning of the wheel at my uncle’s bacon factory.
The book is written in the first person present tense voice of Rachel. The frequent flashbacks, which connect the past and present for us, are also written in the present tense.
The characters are dynamic and alive, influenced by the events around them. In the beginning, Rachel subscribes to the imperialist view. Then Michael teaches her about the subtle racism of The Tempest where Prospero assumes that Caliban is gabbling when he doesn’t understand his language, just as the Europeans look down on the Africans, denigrating their culture and customs.
Michael encourages Rachel to think and question. It is as though all the people I have known up until now have been like toy soldiers with their feet set apart on a lead base, and he is real; in movement, on a course that I am compelled to follow.
Seldom have I seen a character change so completely. As Rachel says, I have moved over to the other side and there is no going back.
Michael is a complex character. From thinking well of the Europeans, he realises that the white man had no prerogative over the Word of God. No prerogative over the idea of what it is to be civilized.
The descriptions are beautiful, as Africa, I’ve heard, is. The writing acquires a decidedly more vibrant hue when the author describes Kenya, yet much of it seems like a Westerner’s fascination with a third world country, seeing beauty in noise and chaos, things that the Third World would not be charmed by.
The book is set in the historical context. In 1952, five years after India has gained independence, while the Kenyan nation is struggling under British rule. The worst excesses of imperialism are visible.
There are a lot of stories intertwined. Rachel’s own reference to Briar Rose, the princess who wakes up after 100 years to find everything exactly as it was. Unlike her own situation which has changed so drastically. At another time, Rachel remembers the cruelty of the father of Hansel and Gretel, who was convinced to abandon his children twice, not unlike her own situation. What is love if it can change so easily, under a stranger’s persuasion?
The language is poetically beautiful. The Swahili peppered all through makes it more real. I liked Rachel’s description of meeting a European child of her own age in Africa, staring as an ape does when it is shown its image in a mirror for the first time.
The writing leads us to the climax, the final inexorable conclusion, escalating the tumult in the characters’ lives. Things finally come to a head on the night when Elizabeth is crowned Queen.
Born in a nation that was once one of England’s richest colonies, I could relate to what the Kenyans were going through, even though these events happened decades before I was born.
Author Jennifer McVeigh writes her way into our admiration with this one.