BOOK REVIEWS

Louisa Treger’s prose lilts with mu­si­cal ca­dence

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THE DRAGON LADY Louisa Treger Loot.co.za (R309) BLOOMS­BURY CAR­AVEL

RE­VIEWER: KA­RINA M SZCZUREK

SOUTH African-born Louisa Treger used to work as a clas­si­cal vi­o­lin­ist be­fore she turned to lit­er­a­ture, first gain­ing a PhD in English at Univer­sity Col­lege London and then try­ing her hand at creative writ­ing.

Her aca­demic re­search fo­cused on early 20th-cen­tury women’s writ­ing and re­sulted in her first novel, The Lodger, which told the story of Dorothy Richard­son, a British au­thor and jour­nal­ist who was one of the ear­li­est mod­ernist nov­el­ists. In her hey­day, she was con­sid­ered among the greats of the era, but was sub­se­quently ne­glected by read­ers and crit­ics alike.

Re­main­ing within the realm of the his­tor­i­cal novel, Treger went on to write her lat­est of­fer­ing, The Dragon Lady.

Blend­ing fact and fic­tion, the novel chron­i­cles the re­mark­able life of Lady Vir­ginia Cour­tauld, or Ginie, most fa­mous for her – at the time con­sid­ered out­ra­geous – tat­too of a dragon on her leg.

The novel opens with the shoot­ing of its pro­tag­o­nist on La Rochelle, the Cour­taulds’ Rhode­sian es­tate, in the 1950s: “At that in­stant, a loud noise splin­tered the air… Her body tensed and con­vulsed, her limbs sprawled grace­lessly, blood spilled onto the ground. For a few mo­ments, there was an un­earthly still­ness.”

Nar­rated from var­i­ous per­spec­tives, The Dragon Lady takes us back and forth in time and place to record the events and achieve­ments in Ginie’s ex­traor­di­nary life story.

Un­con­ven­tional, dar­ing and visionary, Ginie was a woman way ahead of her time. We fol­low her life from Italy at the be­gin­ning of the pre­vi­ous cen­tury, via Eng­land and Scot­land of the 1920s to 40s, to Rhode­sia at a time of great so­cial and po­lit­i­cal up­heavals.

It might be Treger’s mu­si­cal train­ing that al­lows her to cap­ture all these set­tings in a lan­guage that is so evoca­tive, it en­ables read­ers to ex­pe­ri­ence them as if they had been there them­selves.

And be­cause some of the places the Cour­taulds built or re­stored in their time still ex­ist to­day, you might find your­self long­ing to visit their Eltham Palace in south-east London or La Rochelle in the Im­beza Val­ley in present-day Zim­babwe.

Lady Vir­ginia Cour­tauld fas­ci­nates in her own right. She was a di­vor­cée and a for­eigner when she met and mar­ried Sir Stephen Lewis Cour­tauld, up­set­ting London so­ci­ety’s “delicate”’ sensitivit­ies.

When they re­lo­cated to Africa, Ginie’s and her hus­band’s pro­gres­sive views did not en­dear them to their white neigh­bours, dead-set on main­tain­ing their priv­i­lege in a seg­re­gated so­ci­ety.

Treger de­picts the vast so­cio­his­tor­i­cal changes tak­ing place at the cen­tre of Ginie’s life with ex­cep­tional skill, weav­ing them into the in­ti­mate love story of the Cour­tauld cou­ple.

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