Shaking up Rhodesia’s conventions
The Dragon Lady
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