After six years in England, Rachel has returned to Kenya and the farm where she spent her childhood, but the beloved home she’d longed for is much changed. Her father’s new companion—a strange, intolerant woman—has taken over the household. The political climate in the country grows more unsettled by the day and is approaching the boiling point. And looming over them all is the threat of the Mau Mau, a secret society intent on uniting the native Kenyans and overthrowing the whites.
As Rachel struggles to find her place in her home and her country, she initiates a covert relationship, one that will demand from her a gross act of betrayal. One man knows her secret, and he has made it clear how she can buy his silence. But she knows something of her own, something she has never told anyone. And her knowledge brings her power.
Leopard at the Door is set in Kenya in the early 1950s in the months leading up to the coronation of Elizabeth II. Kenya became part of the British Empire in 1895, however it didn’t become popular as a place to settle until after the First World War when young British officers were given large parcels of land to encourage them to settle. During the Second World War, many young Africans were recruited into military service which offered them more advantages and they were reluctant to return to their old lives when the war ended. As a result, African nationalism began to rise and many questioned colonial rule, as well as the restrictions placed on them in their own country.
The unrest led to the birth of the Mau Mau, a movement intent on getting rid of European settlers by burning homesteads and murdering the settlers. The Mau Mau’s favourite tactic was to forcibly recruit Kikuyu natives in a position of trust amongst the white settlers and to blackmail them into carrying out the atrocities. In the afterword, McVeigh goes on to explain only 32 farmers were killed during the uprisings, however British retribution was swift and an estimated 20,000 alleged Mau Mau militants were hunted down and killed, although this number has long been disputed. Those arrested for questioning were subjected to such appalling mistreatment, claims against human rights violations are still being filed against the British government today.
It is into this toxic atmosphere that Rachel suddenly finds herself when she returns from England and she can hardly comprehend the changes in her beloved homeland. When Rachel reflects back on her childhood in Kenya, it appears almost idyllic in nature as her mother loved the land and its people to the extent she sought to improve the living conditions of the Kikuyu wherever she could. Rachel was allowed to roam freely, developing close relationships with their Kikuyu servants and their families. However, everything changes when Rachel’s mother is killed in a car crash while visiting relatives in England, and her father decides to send her to boarding school. Before Rachel learns of her mother’s death, she witnesses a Kenyan being brutally killed in her uncle’s factory and although she is too young to understand the reasons behind it – the consequences will return to haunt her later.
Much of the first half of the book is taken up with Rachel trying to come to terms with the changes in her father’s life, particularly with the arrival of Sara, who is nothing like her mother. Sara, who is still married to her first husband, is not happy living in the middle of nowhere and she treats the Kikuyu with disdain. Sara is a prime example of everything that is wrong with British colonialism and much of her actions are abhorrent which inevitably causes conflict with Rachel who does not agree with her sentiments. Rachel’s father often takes Sara’s side in the disagreements which hurts her terribly and makes her feel like she is no longer welcome in her own home. Rachel does come across as being fairly naive at the start of the novel but she is still only a teenager seeking her place in the world.
As the Mau Mau atrocities escalate and nearby farms are attacked, Sara and Rachel are often left to their own devices as Rachel’s father takes his turn patrolling and Rachel becomes increasingly wary of the servants she has known her whole life. The tension during these scenes is so palpable you can almost touch it as every little noise is heightened and ripples of fear flow through the women. While Sara is a loathsome character, she is far from one-dimensional as Rachel learns the woman’s back story, she feels a little more sympathetic but pitying her proves to be dangerous. Being on the verge of womanhood, Rachel is also discovering her own passionate nature but her romance with Michael was never really convincing to me. I felt the whole thing to be a little icky since Michael knew Rachel as a little girl and I don’t recall their age difference even being mentioned.
The story is quite a violent one as we are not spared the descriptions of the atrocities committed by the Mau Mau, and the appalling retaliation handed out by the British as a consequence but the scenes are never gratuitous and completely necessary to our understanding of the situation. McVeigh balances out the brutality with her beautiful descriptions of the Kenyan landscape and the wonderful characters who inhabit her world who manage to reflect both sides of this horrid situation.