Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

A Spear of Summer Grass
By: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
ISBN: 978-0-7783-1439-4


"Don't believe the stories you have heard about me. I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman's husband....And I never meant to go to Africa." - Delilah Drummond

Delilah Drummond is no stranger to scandal, having learned the essentials of mastering a notorious lifestyle with verve and flair at her mother Mossy's knee. But her latest scandal is even too much for her open-minded mother, as following her last husband's suicide and the subsequent battle over his assets, the newspapers smell blood -- and Delilah's questionable mores and carefree lifestyle are the target, with collateral damage among her family, friends, and ex-husbands not just a fear, but a very real possibility. And so Delilah is sent packing, her infamy and seemingly unstoppable proclivity for fostering scandal sent to Fairlight, her (first) stepfather's Kenyan estate. There she will cool her heels, lost in the wilds of Africa, until the worst of the scandal passes and she is free to return from exile -- free to return to her endless round of parties and pleasure-seeking, a life of carelessly constructed excess designed to fill the hole ripped in her soul by the Great War.

But nothing prepared Delilah for Africa. Even in Nairobi, Delilah finds her reputation has proceeded her, souring the opinion of local authorities against her presence. Fairlight has fallen into disrepair, and she throws herself into the project of its rehabilitation -- and as word of her presence spreads, the natives arrive, seeking work, medicine, and justice, casting the new mistress of Fairlight as benefactress, a role Delilah isn't sure she's willing -- or able -- to play. Drawing on reservoirs of strength and determination she never knew she possessed, Delilah settles into life at Fairlight and slowly but surely finds herself falling under Africa's heady, intoxicating spell.

All temptation, however, was not left behind in Europe and America, as the small community of expatriates Delilah meets remind her of the life to which she fully intends to return, even as she finds herself troubled by their excesses and attitude toward the native Africans. She renews a liason with Kit, a painter, even as she's inexorably drawn to the rugged masculinity and raw power of Ryder White, a legendary hunter. But the more time she spends with Ryder, the more Delilah realizes that Ryder is the one man she can't control, the one man who threatens to demand more of her than she's willing to give -- the fearful leap of whole-hearted commitment. As tensions escalate over Kenya's bid for independence, an unspeakable crime is committed, and Delilah is forced to confront her deepest fears and decide if she has the strength to stop running and claim a life and a love the likes of which she'd never dreamed -- a life as starkly honest and unvarnished as Africa, the land that's staked an irrevocable claim on her soul.

Last year I was captivated by Far in the Wilds, the prequel novella to Delilah's story, in which Raybourn introduced Ryder in all of his smoldering glory and rugged charm. But to my everlasting chagrin, I allowed the follow-up to languish on my to-be-read pile -- however, if a book was ever worth the wait, it's this one. A Spear of Summer Grass is an absolutely intoxicating read. As an ardent fan of British costume dramas, I'm always on the lookout for novels that replicate that viewing experience -- and with the exception of Philip Rock's Greville trilogy, novels that possess that cinematic spark, that seduce the reader with luxurious prose, unforgettable characterizations, and an unparalleled sense of time and place have fallen short -- until now. With Delilah's story, Raybourn has delivered a sterling example of everything I crave in historical fiction. A Spear of Summer Grass is a story to be savored, an evocative glimpse into a world long past, and a heartbreaking examination of the transformative effect of the Great War on social mores and those who survived to stitch together the shattered remains of their pre-war illusions.

Delilah is, perhaps, Raybourn's strongest heroine to date. Powerfully informed by the tremendously flawed, strong women surrounding her Lousiana-Creole upbringing, she's independent, strong-willed, and compassionate, renowned for her fast lifestyle but with her own strong moral code that cannot be denied. By setting this novel in the early post-war years, at the dawn of the heady rush that was the Roaring Twenties, Raybourn is able to explore the well-entrenched impact of the Great War on a bright young thing like Delilah. The loss of her first great love, Johnny, and the wholesale destruction the conflict wreaked upon her generation is, in a word, catastrophic. As her cousin and companion Dora so astutely observes, it isn't endless pleasure that Delilah seeks with her hedonistic lifestyle, it's oblivion -- always fleeting and increasingly temporary, a mind-numbing salve that allows her time and again to deny coming to terms with herself and her life. With Delilah, Raybourn has captured the underlying brokenness of the 1920s, the pain that so often festered just beneath the excess, a never-healed wound carried by many of those touched by the previous decade's conflict.

I knew from reading Raybourn's Lady Julia novels that she could pen a swoon-worthy romance, and maybe it's just been a while since I read those but with Ryder I'm convinced she's crafted her best hero yet. Cut from the classic adventure mold created by the likes of Allen Quartermain, and which informed my favorite, Indiana Jones, Ryder is bold, brash, and larger-than-life, every bit as wounded as Delilah. Yet where her first, carefully-honed instinct is to run, he is one who plays the long game, a stayer who'd like nothing more than the chance to invest in a relationship with Delilah, much as he has in building his life in Africa. As Ryder tells Delilah, Africa is "no country for softness," the land serving as the crucible in which those who are broken are remade -- but one must make the choice to survive, to embrace a life lived on the knife edge of uncertainty and live it to the full. With Ryder and Delilah, Raybourn has penned a romance for the ages, at once cinematic in scope and breathtakingly intimate. For Ryder, broken and remade as he is, is a man who proves over and over that "he's a hell of a stayer."

Raybourn paints the canvas of her story with sweeping, gorgeously-rendered detail, evoking colonial Africa as a land ripe with possibilities, on the cusp of great change, and not for the faint of heart. Peopled with a host of colorful supporting players, from Gideon, the Masai warrior Delilah befriends, the pleasure-seeking expat Helen, and Tusker, Ryder's indomitable aunt. I particularly loved Raybourn's handling of race relations in 1923 -- while Delilah is a very forward-thinking woman, she's still very much a product of her time, and as such is able to confront issues like race relations and colonial justice with sensitivity and thought-provoking honesty.

A Spear of Summer Grass is a stunning, wholly absorbing novel that will sweep you away to a world lost to the inexorable march of time. Replete with lush, evocative descriptions of Africa's wild beauty, with characters dancing across this vast panorama every bit as wild, wonderful, and unique as the land the grow to love. As a product of Raybourn's imagination, Delilah is a masterclass in characterization; as a character she is an irresistible, compelling force to be reckoned with, one that will wile her way into your heart and captivate your imagination. At once a fascinating character piece, a love letter to a beautiful land, and an insightful examination of the shattering effects of the Great War, A Spear of Summer Grass is a novel to be savored. This is Raybourn at her finest -- lush prose, impeccable plotting, sublimely crafted characters, and a heart-tugging, sweeping saga that will leave its indelible imprint on your imagination.

About the book:

Paris, 1923

The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even among Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather's savanna manor house until gossip subsides.

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming—yet fleeting and often cheap.

Amidst the wonders—and dangers—of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for—and what she can no longer live without.


And now, a book-casting BONUS! :) A Spear of Summer Grass practically begs to be made into a film, as Raybourn brings Delilah and Ryder to life with technicolor vibrancy on the page. So of COURSE, I had to "cast" Delilah and Ryder...if you've read the novel, I'd love to know your thoughts!

I cannot think of an actress more perfectly suited to play Delilah than Essie Davis, pictured here in her role as Phryne Fisher from the AMAZING Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (if you haven't watched this show, WHAT ON EARTH are you waiting for?!). Not only is Phryne, in many respects, Delilah's emotional twin, but Davis has the clothes and mannerisms down perfectly. BBC, someone, make this happen!

Now, it could be that I'm a little obsessed with Outlaw Queen-shipping on Once Upon a Time, and was therefore projecting on my reading -- but setting aside my love for the developing Robin/Regina relationship, I really think Sean Maguire would be an excellent Ryder. He's got the rough edges, the humor, the attitude, and most of all, the looks.

And one more, just in case I haven't convinced you of Sean's ability to cast smoldering looks at his leading lady (incidentally, if Essie Davis isn't available to play Delilah, Lana Parrilla would be my second choice). :)

I can't even deal with this.


Unknown said...


this book sounds a little like OUT OF AFRICA

Unknown said...

@Unknown - Rachel, Rachel IS THAT YOU?!

Also, yes to Out of Africa, but BETTER. Imagine that. :)

Also, hyperbole much? ;) But thanks for the comment. :)

Anonymous said...

pretty nice blog, following :)

Jack said...

This sounds unusual enough I am considering reading it. Romances, to me, are all the same. So when one breaks the mold it always catches my interest. (Also, who wouldn't like a hero named Ryder?)

Unknown said...

@Skyline Spirit - Thanks!

@Jack - Thanks for considering it. :) And I COMPLETELY agree with you about the name Ryder. :)