Historical romances set in Africa are quite rare, and if they are written by such a skilled writer as Deanna Raybourn, who has won great acclaim with her Lady Julia mysteries, expectations are high. So I was very excited about reading A Spear of Summer Grass. When I closed it, I was still very pleased, even if the book does fall short of perfection.
In 1923, Delilah Drummond, descended from New Orleans and British aristocracy, twice widowed and once divorced, regularly shocks the upper classes of four continents with her hedonistic lifestyle and her scandalous antics. The latest scandal is too much, however, and she is shipped to Kenya where her former stepfather (her mother being even more-married than Delilah) owns a farm in the Rift Valley.
On arriving in Africa accompanied by her companion Dora (a poor relation), Delilah soon makes the acquaintance of J. Ryder White, a hunter and adventurer of Canadian extraction who fascinates her without end, but who may be too complex and too dangerous to toy with. Sexual tension runs high while Ryder shows Delilah both the beauty and the cruelty of Africa.
Meantime, Delilah meets old acquaintances who share her hedonism, strikes up a friendship with an elderly farmer and two Masai people, goes on safari, and makes an enemy in her stepfather’s steward. But undercurrents run strong in that almost claustrophobic society, and suddenly a number of dramatic events make Delilah question her priorities.
The novel is multi-layered and complex, and it is difficult to do justice to its many facets in the space of a review. So let’s start with the heroine: Delilah is the archetypical rake – usually this character is male in a romance, but here we have the female version. Because of some events in her past, she has hardened her heart and openly and flamboyantly lives for pleasure alone, following every impulse with very little care about how others may react. She is capable of the most blatant selfishness towards some people, yet of compassion to others. She is honest – mostly even to herself – and courageous, as long as emotions are not part of the deal. I liked her, and thought the first-person narration was used to great effect.
Ryder is Denys Finch Hatton, Robert Redford (who played him in the movie version of Out of Africa), and every blond adventurer in Africa that you have ever heard of rolled into one. The phrase larger than life was coined for him. The first time Delilah sees him is when he beats up a white wife-beater, a man of his own class, publicly at the railway station. Yet Deanna Raybourn manages to make him both charming and vulnerable, by giving him a sense of humor and a profound appreciation of the beauty of Africa. He is also an early conservationist. But he and Delilah don’t actually spend that much time together, and a lot of what she discovers about him is told to her by other characters. This seemed to me one of the weaknesses of the book.
With Ryder absent so often, great parts of the book deal with Delilah’s relationship with other characters. She utterly fails in her dealings with her cousin Dora, but as she befriends two Masai brothers, she opens up to the intricacies of the African communities, tries to respect them and learns to play a role in them.
The descriptions of the landscape and the animals are fabulous, making you see in your inner eye what is being described. Overall, the book’s language, lyrical and evocative, is one of its greatest strengths. The descriptions of both the African and white societies are highly illustrative as well, and the historical allusions anchor the book solidly in the period it’s set.
I would like to point out that although sex plays a very large part in almost all characters’ lives and sexual tension runs high, very little of the various sexual encounters is actually described. For that reason, this book only hits “subtle” on the sensuality ratings.
So what kept the book from receiving DIK status? The ending. While it fits the overall tone that not all loose threads are tied up, too many things just happen. People just happen to give Delilah relevant information, and one character just happens to have an accident, all in a very short space of time. The romance ending, however, was as muted and subtle as it was delightful.
All in all, A Spear of Summer Grass is a complex story about compelling characters with just some minor flaws. Although it is a romance, it borders on historical fiction. If you like both genres, this will be a great read for you.
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