Khanh the Killjoy

A Spear of Summer Grass - Deanna Raybourn The men stood back, chanting a song of one who would not be forgotten, of loved ones lost and returned to the earth, and of the land itself which does not die but is always born anew with each fall of the long rains. They chanted of life, which is short as a spear of summer grass or long as the heart of the Rift itself, and of the silent land that waits beyond. They chanted of Africa.My apologies in advance for the liberal use of quotations within this review. The writing is beautiful, exemplary, and I couldn't help myself.Deanna Raybourn has a skill for writing spectacular settings and believably flawed characters. I have always enjoyed the beautifully vibrant atmosphere she creates, along with the rich and varied characters within her novels, be it her Lady Julia Gray series, or one of her standalones. Her typical repertoire usually takes place in 19th century Europe, and we do have a change of pace here. Nevertheless, the quality of writing still remains, and despite the slow pace of the novel, Deanna Raybourn has once again established her talents as a writer.I have always loved her heroines; they are independent, strong, and not surprisingly in historical novels, ahead of their times. I had mixed reactions to Delilah at first; she is initially not a likeable character. The story is narrated from her first person point of view, and what we know of Delilah in the first hundred or so pages did not endear me to her in the least. Compared to the other heroines in Deanna Raybourn's books, Delilah initially comes off as a typical free-spirited woman of the 20s, spoiled from her wealthy upbringing, loose of morals, with a string of discarded husbands and broken hearts in her wake.We do get initial flashes of vulnerability, but it is more or less upstaged by her antics and her larger than life (and not in a good way) presence. She eats men for breakfast, lunch, and dinner...maybe even brunches and elevensies, too. It would take an entire day's worth of Hobbit meals to fit in all the men she has devoured, left behind, battered and their spirit broken, in her wake.. Delilah spends money like it's water, and is seemingly more interested in clothes, fashion, and being the penultimate trendsetter among her clique of social elites than about the consequences of her actions.Her scandal (and it's not a huge one) is nevertheless enough for her socialite mother, her fair-weather friends, and still-besotted former husbands to want to banish her in order to avoid further disgrace. Delilah is notorious among her set, and that comes with a price of its own."Notoriety was indeed contagious. If you were a carrier, decent people didn’t care to spend time with you lest they come down with it. Infamy was an infection most folks could do without, even if the price for it was living a very small and colourless life."Faced between exile and being financially cut off by her wealthy, controlling grandfather, Delilah chooses the former.Africa is her sequestered destination. At this time, British colonization is still firmly in place, and there are quite a few British expatriates living abroad. Africa is a wild place, full of promise and danger, beauty and brutality. The setting is the star here, and in none of her books (not even the one set in Transsylvania!) has Deanna Raybourn built up the atmosphere and the feeling of the place as vividly and distinctly as she has here.I heard nothing but the long rush of wind up from the valley floor. It carried with it every promise of Africa, that wind. It smelled of green water and red earth and the animals that roamed it. And there was something more, something old as the rocks. It might have been the smell of the Almighty himself, and I knew there were no words for this place. It was sacred, as no place I had ever been before.Africa may be beautiful, but her new home, Fairlight, is a wreck. It was like being shown a photograph of a winsome orphan one meant to adopt, only to arrive and find the child had rickets and a snotty nose and was dressed in rags. I felt my shoulders sag as I stood, rooted to the spot. Once faced with the harsh truth of living on a crumbling estate, surrounded by nature and all the danger it entails, Delilah asserts herself, and we see what kind of a woman she is underneath her glamorous and carefree façade once it starts to crumble.“You have always been dazzling—the life of every party, the glamour girl who dances until dawn.”“Well, I am. But I’m dancing on broken glass. I’m Miss Havisham’s wedding cake, Kit. A frothy, expensive, mice-eaten confection. I’m the Sphinx’s nose, the fallen Colossus. I’m a beautiful ruin, and it’s time that has done the deed.”Delilah proves to be no shrinking violet, she plays hands-on nurse relying on her experience during World War I, caring for the sick and injured villagers; she weathers the harsh new lifestyle better than I expected, with unexpected fortitude and her usual carefree attitude. Eventually the story of her past unfolds, and we learn why she hides herself the way she has, why she breezes through life so carelessly so she doesn't have to think about the past. The land and the new situation helps to heals her, but some things can never be entirely fixed."Do you know what a cicatrix is, Ryder? It’s a scar, a place where you have been cut so deeply that what’s left behind is something quite different. It doesn’t heal, not really, because it isn’t the same ever again. It’s impenetrable and it’s there forever, to protect you from hurting the same place again.”The attitudes of the white colonists range from downright disdain to a paternalistic one. The overwhelming attitude among the white expatriates is one of condescension. They view the natives as one would a child: they do not think the natives capable of taking adequate care of themselves and their land, and this results in rampant poverty, disease, illiteracy, and a decay of morals. The white men are less men than gods, saviors, as they view themselves.Imperial attitudes prevail, and there is an underlying tension between the natives and the white expatriates. Even more evident are the lurking strain between the expatriates themselves; they are small group of people who have been reluctantly thrown together due to their proximity more than their similarity of minds."Something seemed slightly off with the company. There were undercurrents of tension I didn’t quite understand. In any close group of people there are bound to be secret resentments, and this group was closer than most...But little things could fester in the African heat, and I wondered if any small thorn prick had been left to turn septic.The romance develops slowly, and is believable and painstakingly, subtly portrayed. Both Ryder and Delilah have scarred past, both are scared to become involved. The gradual progress in their relationship is not the backbone of the story, but a result of it. Like Delilah, Ryder is not the most likeable character when we first meet him as he is thrashing the bloody life out of a man. That man turned out to be a wife-beater. Ryder turns out to be the perfect foil for Delilah, he is rough, bluff, and nothing like the sycophantic suitors that she is used to. There is no blind worship in their relationship; they are on equal footing, and he proves to be a match for our heroine.I loved this book, it is like a lullaby. The subplot seems almost forgettable and slow in its pacing; but it is the characters, their growth, and ultimately the landscape itself that makes this book as beautiful as it was. Highly recommended for a lovely, lyrical read.