In her second novel, Leopard at the Door, British author Jennifer McVeigh has cemented her strong penchant for Naturalism. McVeigh’s debut novel The Fever Tree harbored strong resemblance to W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. Her protagonist was very similar to Somerset’s focal character Kitty Garstin, whose initial vanity, superficiality, and willful naivete aligns with The Fever Tree’s Frances Irvine. The fact both characters redeem themselves after a rude awakening from the bouts of self-delusion and silly romanticism that put their life and chance at true love in jeopardy, revealed The Fever Tree not only as a sort of less tragic modern version of The Painted Veil, but also gave us a strong indication that McVeigh had a fondness for amply describing the South African landscape, making it a solid character with a voice of its own.
In Leopard at the Door, McVeigh brings us to Kenya in the 1950s, a time of social unrest under the domination of the British Empire, and the spark of a much feared revolution, set forth by a rebel group known as the Mau Mau. The novel’s main character Rachel Fullsmith returns to her father’s farm in Kenya after six years of absence, forced to leave Africa by her father after the unexpected death of Rachel’s mother.
Her apprehension and anticipation is felt in equal measure as she arrives in Kenya, which has very much to do with returning to a place that is very different from the one she left, and to a father who she hardly knows anymore. Shipped off to England to live with her grandmother she has had little to no contact with the father she idolized as a little girl. Upon returning to Kenya Rachel is surprised and disappointed to find a strange woman, her father’s new partner Sara, who besides living with her father while still married to another man, is taking her mother’s place and doing her best to obliterate any reminder of the previous memsaab from the household. Adding to her grievance, she also finds herself exiled from her old bedroom now in possession of Sara’s shy and dour son, Harold.
While The Fever Tree presented certain characters that were unlikeable, weak or cruel, at the same time they were three-dimensional and complex. Their behaviour was defined by their life experiences, their evolution and transformation gradual but there. Leopard at the Door, on the other hand, has no such character shift or development.
Rachel is weak and a pushover from start to finish, bullied by virtually everyone around her; her father, his mistress, and Steven Lockhart. The latter holds a powerful secret over Rachel and uses it to humiliate her verbally and sexually, groping her several times against her consent. She keeps this from her father from fear he will know she was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be, and saw something she shouldn’t have when she was only twelve years old.
Even her secret relationship with the rebellious Kenyan native Michael, who sparingly comes to her defense in dire situations, is disappointing, the alleged chemistry and love between them never quite there. The encounters and conversations between them are few, and when they occur they are too hurried, too rushed, as if McVeigh was eager to get this part over with to return to what actually turns out to be the best part of the novel, the description of the landscape.
Here McVeigh is a master. Her heartfelt narration is one of a place she knows well and loves even more, descriptions of the vast African landscape and wildlife detailed enough to effectively jump from the page. Upon her return, Rachel reflects on seeing Kenya and the vast terrain between the port on Mombasa Island and her father’s farm:
I must have slept for longer than I thought. We are in open country. The plains of the central highlands stretch into the hazy distance like the shimmering, tawny back of a lion. Herds of wildebeest and zebra mingle in the long grass, and far off I can see the elephants moving, their bodies silhouetted against the afternoon sky, like dark storm clouds. The smell of the dry road, the rolling grasslands, the warmth of the sun against my skin make the last six years seem almost as though they were a dream.
Although not within the deeply analytical range of the sombre prose of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Leopard at the Door points a critical finger at the cruel practices of British colonialism in Africa. The injustices enacted against the natives in their own land are epitomized in the novel by the actions of Rachel’s stepmother Sara, the District Officer Steven Lockhart, and to a certain extent by Rachel’s own father.
When the Mau Mau begin to commit their atrocities against white European farmers in Kenya, and come increasingly closer to their own farm, Rachel has a sudden revelation that the savagery was first instigated by the British, saying to Sara: “We have taken away their lands, crippled them with taxes, and closed down their schools.” It’s significant to point out that this is one of Rachel’s very few moments of bravery, but is sadly overshadowed by her inability to reveal the truth about Steven’s frequent harassment to her father, as well as her failure to claim and defend her rightful position as her father’s only child.
As the end of the novel nears, we still expect to see a Rachel transformed from an insecure, scared and sniveling girl into a strong, take-charge woman but it never happens. Her character never evolves or shows any growth despite the many life-altering events she is forced to live through. The story itself is also flawed, plagued with too many plot holes that are never resolved and crucial conversations that never take place.
While an open-ending is a perfectly valid literary device that many fiction authors use, it doesn’t make sense when it’s used to replace mandatory resolutions to important loose threads. While not expecting a neatly tied-with-a-bow, mea-culpa ridden ending, or bad-guy comeuppance from the author, McVeigh could have easily given her readers and the novel a sense of character redemption and evolution. Sadly, this never materializes.