Friday, May 17, 2019

Book Book of 2013 - Deanna Raybourn's A Spear of Summer Grass

A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Harlequin MIRA
Publication Date: April 23rd, 2013
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."

- Walt Whitman

With her latest scandal, another husband dead, this time via suicide, and a fight for his inheritance of the Volkonsky jewels arising, Delilah Drummond's family has convened in Paris to discuss her exile from polite society. She must remove herself from public scrutiny or face being cut off forever by her Grandfather back in New Orleans. The imperial "they" have decided that she will hide herself away at her ex step father's house Fairlight, in Kenya. Delilah doesn't have much of a say and agrees to the arranged banishment, knowing full well that as soon as the allotted time is over she will be back in Paris, or New York, or whatever city will have her, probably not New York... that pesky Volstead act kind of puts a kink in ones cocktails. Arriving in Africa with her "devoted" cousin Dodo as her chaperon, Delilah doesn't quite know what to make of her situation. Kenyan society is made up of the outcasts of respectable civilization, meaning people Delilah already knows. It's quite a shock to be relocated yet still surrounded by those who were a little too outre for everyone else.

There is a part of Delilah that feels at home, and not just because she picks back up where she left off before getting married to husband number two with the artist Kit Parrymore, located near at hand on the Fairlight property. The dinner parties hosted by Rex and Helen Farrady, as the reigning King and Queen of Kenya are just the kind of social occasions Delilah is used to with booze flowing and witty conversation larded with innuendo. Though Helen's private parties are another story... But soon Delilah is fighting not just her new found love for Africa and the exiled life she has reluctantly embraced, but she's also fighting her attraction to Ryder White. Ryder, that great white hunter. The man of contradictions, who believes in the preservation of Africa and it's animals, while also leading Safaris for those who are willing to overpay him. For the first time Delilah isn't giving in immediately to her fleeting fancies... but that could be because Ryder rankled her with placing a bet that he would be the first to bed her. Is it wrong that she took delight in sleeping with Kit so fast just to make him lose? Yet how long can she deny that she has stumbled into everything she's ever needed?

Like the Whitman poem the book takes it's title from, there's a freshness, a freeness to Deanna's Africa with its overt sexuality that makes this book an addictive and delicious read. While I feel that this is the best Raybourn book I have read I have a feeling that the rawness and sexuality might deter other readers, whereas I felt that it perfectly captured the time and the place epitomized in the character of Delilah. Raybourn is able to take old tales and stories from the Happy Valley Days and inject a new life to them. Helen's bathtub, and in fact Helen herself, with nods to Idina Sackville, doesn't feel heavy with the baggage of multiple retellings. Deanna was able to incorporate aspects and anecdotes of the time without making it feel like you've heard it all before, which is a true gift after all the books on Africa I have read. Deanna made Africa feel new to me and I don't think there are many authors or books I can say that about. Delilah had so much life that, while we do get a mystery buried deep down, A Spear of Summer Grass is more a character study than a whodunit, and I didn't regret that for a minute.

Of course I have a soft spot for Kenya that I think might be a genetic disposition. My mother throughout my childhood was obsessed with books and films on Africa. Her studio space was actually influenced by African safaris. And while we might disagree on the literary merits of Out of Africa, we can come together and agree on our love of Kenya. Therefore this book gave me great joy in seeing someone else, albeit a fictional someone, fall in love with a country she viewed as a punishment. It's weird to think of a place you've never been having such a magnetic pull on you. I'd never want to live in Kenya, but I do want to visit. But the Kenya I love is the Kenya of the past. And there is that tendency to romanticize a time and a place, and British Kenya is such a time and a place. Yet the society is the exact opposite of the society I crave in real life, which would be preferably quiet and bookish. Therefore Kenya is an escape for me, a look into a life that calls to me but would never be mine and therefore A Spear of Summer Grass is the perfect escapist read. It was everything my heart wanted but knew I would never embrace in my own life. IE, a perfect book.

That perfection is achieved on so many levels, yet they all have one thing in common, and that's taking something you thought you knew everything about and making it fresh again. The most refreshing aspect though was that while Delilah had the Great War baggage and the night terrors and all the typical signs of PTSD, we are not forced to dwell on this. As I have ranted before, so many modern books belabour this point and make more of it then what it is, not a part of the character, but something that is bigger than the character and becomes a separate entity weighing down the whole book. Delilah is damaged, but everyone in Africa is damaged in some way according to Ryder. Blessedly Deanna handles this balance just perfectly and I didn't have to read about guns in the distance causing flashbacks, yet again. And this isn't to diminish people who do suffer no matter how it presents itself, just to state that stereotyping PTSD does the disease a disservice. Everyone battles it in their own way and it's nice to see someone understand that and write about it.

Everything in this book, even the PTSD, has to perfectly fit the character because this book is more a character study than a plot driven narrative. If there was one little character trait or quirk out of place it would have stood out more than in other books. The originality and the connection between these characters are what made me devour this book. While I do really really like Ryder as the hero and his luscious Han Solo Harrison Fordness which was tailor made for the fair Princesses among us, he wasn't the big draw for me. I know, shocking! But if you really want more Ryder, and I can't really blame you because Han Solo was it for me as a kid, you should check out his little prequel novella, Far in the Wilds. I quite enjoyed it. Moving beyond Ryder, the two characters I connected with most are Ryder's best friend Gideon and his little lame brother Moses, who are native Masai. The way Gideon becomes Delilah's best friend and how they bond over just talking about the simplest of things, like the Masai words for plants, made him far and away my favorite character in the book.

To me Gideon was so real that he walked right out of the pages and into my heart. Likewise his younger brother Moses. To not only have a connection because of his being a sweet boy with a lame leg who doesn't speak, I mean, how could you not love the little Tiny Timness of him? But to then have that couched in the language of what these disabilities really mean within Masai culture, and how his disabilities mean that he is not only different, but that because of this he can't get cattle to raise and if he doesn't get the cattle then there is no way he can afford a dowry and without that he will never marry and have a fulfilled life, according to his upbringing, just pulls at the heartstrings. The fact that Delilah hires him, that this simple gesture means that Moses could have a real and full life because he is now able to contribute, makes you have the feels all the more. I would even go so far as to say that because of Deanna's integration of characters and culture that you are reading a deeper book than most of the books on Africa out there.


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