The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides.
Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.
Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.
Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.
I’ve read and enjoyed Ms Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey books, so when I saw she’d written a story set in the 1920s, I was intrigued and at the same time a little apprehensive. Not only was the author treading new ground, but so was I – my taste in historicals tends to run to the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. Maybe because I was born and grew up in the second half of the 20th Century, it’s still a little too close for me to really regard it as “historical”!
Fortunately, however, my apprehension was quickly proved groundless, because A Spear of Summer Grass grabbed me from the start.
Delilah Drummond is presented as the epitome of the 20s good-time girl. She’s rich, spoiled, does exactly as she likes and doesn’t care who she shocks or upsets along the way. She’s been married three times (widowed twice, divorced once) regularly takes lovers (including her ex-husband on occasion) without a second thought and has a taste for all the good things in life.
At the beginning of the book however, she has caused one scandal too many for the liking of her family, and she is sent to rusticate in Africa until such time as the gossip has died down and she can return to Europe.
Even in Africa though, she continues to ruffle feathers, mostly because of the fact that she treats the natives as people and takes upon herself the traditional duties of the ‘lady of the manor’ in treating their illnesses and making sure her workers are adequately fed and well-treated. She is immediately adopted by the local ex-patriots, who are real bunch of misfits, having nothing in common other than their presence in Africa and a thinly veiled dislike of each other.
One of the first of these ex-pats encountered by Delilah is Ryder White, who makes his living principally from safari-guiding. He’s sort of a cross between Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain (I can’t help wondering if J. Ryder White is an hommage to H. Rider Haggard) although rather more promiscuous than either of them. But he’s a compelling character; ruggedly masculine, with a good sense of humour and an air of vulnerability and fatalism about him that sometimes belies the steely exterior. Ryder escorts Delilah to Fairlight, the estate owned by her stepfather. To her dismay, it’s a mess – but being Delilah she doesn’t let it deter her and with the help of her cousin and companion Dora, and local workmen, she sets about putting things to rights.
I’ve seen a number of comments from other readers pointing out the similarities between this story and Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. I confess I’ve not read her book, and it’s been quite a long time since I’ve seen the film, so I don’t want to comment on that. All I’ll say is that if that is the case, it didn’t stop me enjoying Delilah’s story.
In Delilah Drummond, Ms Raybourn has created a character that, to quote Jane Austen (on Emma) “no one but myself will much like”. Perhaps we’re not supposed to like her all that much in the beginning, but like her or not, she’s ballsy, courageous and outspoken, and isn’t afraid to admit to her own shortcomings – well, some of them. Of course, behind the highly polished exterior lies a wealth of pain and doubt, a woman who has experienced more than her fair share of loss and heartbreak. As she says to her lover, Kit – “Like every bad thing that’s ever happened to me, I lock it up and don’t think about it.”
In terms of the love story in the novel, I think there are actually two. The relationship between Delilah and Ryder develops slowly to start with. There’s a strong current of mutual attraction and antagonism between them, and the sexual tension fairly crackles as they play a game of one-upmanship as to who will seduce whom. But alongside the human romance is the story of how Delilah is seduced by Africa; the sights, the sounds, the smells, the customs and kindness of the people, and how she is changed by it.
My one complaint is that the romance between Delilah and Ryder could have been better developed. It was clear that they wanted each other physically and that they bonded through an understanding of the life and customs of the country. But these were two emotionally prickly people, and I felt there needed to be more said between them. I’m not really a fan of the plotline in which one of the protagonists has to be alerted as to how the other feels about them by a third party; and Ryder’s actions at the end of the book when he ploughs everything he owns into Fairlight for Delilah’s sake but without any certainty of her reciprocation seemed rather out of character for the man we’ve encountered throughout the rest of the novel.
Those reservations aside however, A Spear of Summer Grass has much to recommend it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s superbly written and well-paced, the characterisation is excellent throughout and Ms Raybourn’s descriptions of the scenery and landscape are simply ravishing.
(Incidentally, more of Ryder’s backstory is revealed in the prequel novella Far in the Wilds, and I don’t think it has to be read before Spear. I read it afterwards and enjoyed getting the full story of some of the events alluded to in the novel in retrospect.)
With thanks to Harlequin/MIRA and NetGalley for the review copy.