“Everywhere we go broadcasts a message, a current of meaning,” observes Rebecca Laurelson, the protagonist of Jean McNeil’s tense and atmospheric new novel, The Dhow House. “Here,” she continues, “it has something to do with danger.” “Here” is Kilindoni, on the east coast of Africa, where Rebecca’s aunt Julia lives with her husband and children. From the road, their home – the Dhow House – appears like a fortress, walled and gated, but on the other side it “dissolve[s] into a garden,” lying open to the sea. The dangerous currents Rebecca senses are not those of the shark-infested waters that stretch with treacherous beauty to the horizon, however: they run through the house itself.
The sources of this danger are both internal and external. Kilindoni sits on the edge of a (fictional) nation in which centuries of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims are being undermined by the encroachment of radical Islamism. This violent conflict seems oddly peripheral to life at the Dhow House, however. As “white Africans,” Julia and her family are aliens in their own land, set apart by their wealth, their colonial history, and their seeming indifference to the surrounding turbulence. “This is the leakiest border between terrorists and the western world,” one local resident comments acidly, “and there’s a whole generation who’ve decided to hunker down in their mansions.”
Rebecca, on leave from an NGO field hospital in the remote northern camp of Gariseb, is an outsider in this luxurious world, and she is both drawn to and repelled by her relatives and the circle of beautiful people that surround them. “In England these people would look quite ordinary,” she thinks, “but here they had taken on the sheen of demi-gods.” Who are they really? What do they think of her – and what would they think if they knew the whole truth about what she has been doing in Africa?
The narrative artfully weaves the story of Rebecca’s visit to the Dhow House with the story of her months at Gariseb. She has worked in war zones before, and the field hospitals have all been barren and functional, like “advance parties sent to the moon.” In the fraught isolation of the camp, urgency alternates with tedium as chaos and suffering break up the routine of repetitive meals and superficial conversation. Rebecca and her colleagues treat Christians and Muslims, soldiers and insurgents alike, but neither their life-saving work nor their principled neutrality guarantees their own safety: “the violence from which the casualties were envoys could easily reach out and engulf them.”
In Kilindoni, Rebecca’s family is curious about Gariseb, and about what might have happened there to leave her so wary. “Any little noise makes you jump,” observes Julia, delicately probing for details Rebecca will not share. We only gradually learn that before she took up her post at Gariseb, Rebecca was recruited by British intelligence as an informant. This assignment heightens her awareness of her surroundings and her interest in the people she treats, including Aisha, a refugee with only a single camel and a tale of horror left to call her own, and Ali, whom, despite his “tentative, bookish” demeanour, Rebecca recognizes as “the exact person the refugees … were trying to avoid.” Rebecca’s secret puts her and her co-workers at additional risk: if anyone finds out, the camp’s fragile immunity will be destroyed.
Beyond this secret, something did happen to Rebecca at Gariseb, and her time at Kilindoni is infected by the residue of that trauma. She grows increasingly aware, too, that the house by the sea is both a product and a symbol of the same historical forces underlying the violence from which she is seeking refuge: this personal space is also an irrevocably political one. Her unease is increased by the resemblance between her aunt and her dead mother, whose only enduring legacy is her emotional neglect. Complicating matters still further is the powerful attraction Rebecca feels to her much younger cousin, Storm, who is poised “at that fleeting point in life where beauty had the immutable density of fact, like wars or diseases.”
McNeil’s deceptively flat affect is reminiscent of Hemingway, whose novels, as Rebecca remarks, are “brutal, but they have such clarity.” Like the landscape she depicts, McNeil’s prose combines poetic grace with shadows of menace: behind every flowering bush or luxurious shrub there may be an exotic bird or a poisonous snake – or an armed marauder. The effect is both gripping and unsettling.
The unease lingers even in the framing story of Rebecca’s return to Kilindoni, this time for the benign purpose of completing her exams to become a licensed birding guide. What could be a greater contrast to the more predatory forms of watching that governed her earlier visit? But though the forest “bubbles with sound,” many of its species are endangered; it remains true, as Rebecca was told when she first came to Kilindoni, that “there is no such thing as innocence here.”