Shak­ing up Rhode­sia’s con­ven­tions

The Dragon Lady

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - 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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