Today I’m pleased to welcome Jennifer McVeigh to the blog. Jennifer is the author of The Fever Tree and her latest novel, Leopard at the Door, was published by Penguin on 18 May 2017.
Here Jennifer discusses the history behind the inspiration for her novel.
Every Story has its Genesis
All writers are beholden to fate – the moment without which a story would never have been written. Leopard at the Door had its beginnings in a small, battered, red canvas suitcase. It was handed to me in an unassuming office in Piccadilly by a man my father knew, and when he gave it to me I had no premonition that my life was about to change. Perhaps you can do something with it, he said, tapping the dusty lid of the suitcase. It belonged to my grandmother. I took it from him somewhat reluctantly – the contents were clearly important to him, and I was hesitant to be their keeper.
Sitting on the tube on my way home, I inspected the suitcase. It was small enough to sit on my lap. There was a handwritten label on the front which read simply ‘- after my death’. I slid open the rusted iron buckles. Inside, the suitcase smelled musty, and faintly intimate in the way that old people sometimes smell, and the floral fabric lining was shredding at the edges. At the top of a pile of papers was a jumble of photographs, each one giving a picture book tour of Kenya: his grandmother’s house in the Rift Valley on the edge of Lake Nakuru; palm trees blowing in the breeze on the shores of the Indian Ocean; a lion – oozing a casual sexual ease – rubbing necks with a lioness; come away with me, and be my bride she had written on the back.
These images stirred a familiar longing. I have been fascinated by Kenya my whole life. I grew up in England as a tomboy, happier making blood brothers in the woods than painting my nails red. I longed for adventure – real adventure, and spent my weekends camped in an old army tent in the garden, where the dawn light filtered through holes in the canvas (were they bullet holes or cigarette burns?) When I was twelve my father took me to East Africa on safari. We galloped horses across plains scattered with zebra; we camped in total wilderness, miles from anywhere, and elephants ambushed our camp. I fell in love with the hidden dangers of the bush, the nights huddled around the camp fire, the open skies, the early mornings, and the bush teeming with game. Yet I knew there was another side to Kenya, something darker than the romance of East Africa conjured up by Blixen and Hemmingway.
I picked up another photograph, and came to an abrupt halt. It showed a very young child, naked, sliced open by a knife so that her guts – swollen in the heat – bulged out of her waist. I let it fall, shocked, but there were more. Men, women, children, and cattle killed by careless strokes of the blade. I turned one over. On the back was written victims of the Mau Mau. And there were other photographs which showed Europeans who were killed by Mau Mau, taken before their deaths; a boy of four sitting on the grass with his brother; a young couple posing on their verandah. Below the photographs was a policeman’s handbook, dated 1953, and below that a manuscript – the author’s history of the Mau Mau uprising.
It was only later that I learnt that Mau Mau was a political movement fuelled by the Kikuyu, who had lost much of their land to white settlers. The manuscript was written in the blinkered, formal language of the 1950s. It was a language I later came to realize was typical of European settlers in Kenya, desperate to hold on to a country which was slipping out of their control. It would be months before I uncovered Kikuyu memoirs which showed the other side of the story – life under British rule in Kenya, and the injustice of the land agreements set out by the colonial government – but as I sat there on the tube reading, a subtle chill crept down my spine. Here was this suitcase and like Pandora’s box it held treasures and horrors, encapsulating that complicated mix of feelings – part longing, part foreboding – which defined the way I felt about Kenya. It was the catalyst I needed to embark on a new story.
About the book:
‘A simply stunning novel that will stay with me: a magnificent book’ Dinah Jefferies, bestselling author of The Tea Planter’s Wife
Stepping off the boat in Mombasa, eighteen-year-old Rachel Fullsmith stands on Kenyan soil for the first time in six years. She has come home.
But when Rachel reaches the family farm at the end of the dusty Rift Valley Road, she finds so much has changed. Her beloved father has moved his new partner and her son into the family home. She hears menacing rumours of Mau Mau violence, and witnesses cruel reprisals by British soldiers. Even Michael, the handsome Kikuyu boy from her childhood, has started to look at her differently.
Isolated and conflicted, Rachel fears for her future. But when home is no longer a place of safety and belonging, where do you go, and who do you turn to?
Read more on the Penguin website.
About the author:
Jennifer McVeigh graduated from Oxford University in 2002. She went on to work in film, radio and publishing before giving up her day job to study for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She has travelled in wilderness areas of East Africa and southern Africa, driving and camping along the way. Her first novel, The Fever Tree (Penguin, 2012), was a Richard and Judy Book Club Pick and received widespread critical acclaim.