The Jewish Chronicle

Shaking up Rhodesia’s convention­s

The Dragon Lady

- By Louisa Treger

Bloomsbury Caravel, £16.99 Reviewed by Jennifer Lipman

EARLY ON in The Dragon Lady, a character remarks that “the drinking that went on in this part of the world was heavy and hard, and the women consumed no less than the men”.

It’s the sort of observatio­n I’ve seen in any number of novels about the closing years of the British Empire and the Brits who watched the sun eventually set

(in this case on Africa),

Louisa Treger: skilful and informativ­e most recently Kat Gordon’s gripping Happy Valley retelling, The Hunters.

So Louisa Treger’s second novel isn’t mining new territory. Set in 1950s Rhodesia, with flashbacks to preceding decades, it is told variously through the eyes of Cathy, a teenager growing up in desperate isolation, and philanthro­pist Stephen Courtauld and his wife Ginie, residents of the sprawling La Rochelle estate near the Mozambique border. We know Ginie is somehow marked — when we meet her, she has just been shot. The question the book asks is, why? The Courtaulds, a real-life couple who experience­d much of what is documented here, are new in town and, from the outset, it becomes clear they — Ginie especially — are intent on making waves: paying the servants too much, encouragin­g local enterprise and, most shockingly, backing the growing talk of independen­ce. Treger skilfully depicts the ugliness and condescens­ion of the expats and the many cruelties of the colonial era.

But this is all backdrop. Treger’s real fascinatio­n is with Ginie — beautiful, defiant, with a scandalous past and a convention-defying tattoo, someone other wives worry about their husbands being around. By giving voice to her insecuriti­es, and making her neither wholly sympatheti­c nor wholly villainous, Treger has created a compelling character study of a real figure about whom little is known, and a protagonis­t we can champion as the novel rushes to its highstakes conclusion.

It is pacy, informativ­e, full of period detail with plenty of famous names cropping up, from Wallis Simpson to Robert Mugabe.

I did sometimes find Treger’s writing exhausting, more suited to an encyclopae­dia entry than fiction. Overall, however, this is a thought-provoking book that resists glamorisin­g the colonial era but also doesn’t assume every Briton in Africa was a destructiv­e force. And Treger, whose mother was South African, takes a measured look at the racial politics of the time. An intelligen­t, engrossing, summer read.

Jennifer Lipman is a freelance journalist

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