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04 May 2013

Deanna Raybourn: A Spear of Summer Grass

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Once in a while I come across a memorable book - "A Spear of Summer Grass" by Deanna Raybourn is one of the best books I have read this year.

In a few pages Raybourn conjures up a wonderful picture of the environment and social atmosphere of colonial East Africa just after WWI. This is a different type of love story -it is about love of East Africa and love between Ryder and Delilah. The central theme that makes this book so memorable is how Delilah tries not to fall in love with life in that part of Africa.

The prequel - Far In The Wilds - introduces us to Ryder White, brought up in the wilds of the Canadian Yukon who is more at home in the wilds of the African bush and chasing the charms of lonely married women than being part of the pleasure-seeking white colonists of Kenyan society. He is a bit like Robert Redford in "Out of Africa".

"Spear in the Summer Grass" introduces us to Delilah Drummond, from an unconventional Creole family from the US South who has been brought up in both the US South and Europe by her similarly unconventional mother. After losing her first husband in WWI Delilah becomes a notorious and emancipated woman with several ex-husbands. She is encouraged to move to Africa for a spell to escape her latest marital and legal problems after her last husband commits suicide.

Delilah is a complex character who at first sight seems to be a spoilt, rich socialite. In Africa she shows that she is an independent, emancipated, smart, strong willed, brave, kind and sensitive person who can face up to the dangers and challenges of Africa. She is promiscuous but very selective, and ignores the excesses of the colonial social scene. She reminds me a lot of one of my favourite fictional heroines, Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher from late 1920's Melbourne.

On her arrival in Nairobi the males in the white settlers' club open a fifty pound betting book on the first man bed Delilah. When Delilah asks Ryder who he had put his money on he replied with grin "Why, myself of course."

Delilah's first night in the African veld opens her eyes to a new world - "I took in a deep, long breath, drinking in Africa, strange and wonderful Africa." She arrives at Fairlight, her ex-stepfather's estate in the Kenyan bush - "The estate was, in kindest terms, a wreck". The house and farm are totally run down. Delilah sets about making it habitable and sustainable. In the process she establishes a close rapport with the local natives, especially the proud and remote Masai and the Kikuyu who work in the home and the farm. This rapport fuels the climax to the book.

Unlike some other reviewers I haven't been distracted by comparing this to other works by Deanna Raybourn's in completely different settings. All I can say is that I really enjoyed this emotional story by a talented author and strongly recommend it.

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