McVeigh uses the return of a young woman to Kenya to chronicle of the deterioration of the country’s British rule in the early 1950s. While England
prepares for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, the entitled, moneyed white landowners live an insular life, protecting their farms against the steadily encroaching Mau Mau. The uprising of these native Kenyans was regarded as one of the most significant steps towards a country free from British rule. The Mau Mau fighters were mainly drawn from one of Kenya's major ethnic groups, the Kikuyu, who were more than a million strong. But by the start of the 1950s, the Kikuyu had been increasingly economically marginalized as years of white settler expansion ate away at their land holdings in what was perhaps the worst of British colonialism.
Into this tinderbox of racial strife comes Rachel Fullsmith, who returns to the family home of Kisima:
“the only home I had known and its land was my inheritance.” Rachel is shocked at how
defeated her father, Robert, seems. She also distrusts Sara, Robert’s new fiancé, who treats Rachel with an angry mix of cynicism and disdain. Still, Kisima has become the repository for all of Rachel’s dreams, a place to escape from the rigid discipline of her English boarding school.
Though Rachel pines for her mother, she’s relieved to be back in the place where she was born, with its colors and its people, where she can finally help her father on the farm just as her mother had done.
Rachel is left with a bewildering sense of isolation and a foreboding that she will not be able to protect her father,
who has irrevocably attached himself to Sara, a woman who seems to be “dragging
him into unhappiness.” Rachel is also haunted by events that took place when she was
12 years old: the murder of a Kenyan striker on her uncle’s Upland bacon factory by Steven Lockhart, the
local district officer. At the time, Rachel attempted to look the other way, but she still struggles to suppress the memories inside of her, recollections that threaten to derail her vision of the other side of Kenya, where raw and brutal physicality is balanced against the inevitability of pain.
Through the use of a dynamic first-person narration, McVeigh convincingly portrays Rachel’s conflicts and confusions. An ethereal quality to her vibrant prose fluctuates between the earthly worlds of Kisima and the disintegrating wider landscape. Rachel and her family listen in to the increasingly grim BBC radio broadcasts that bring reports of the increasing Mau Mau activities, the killing and mutilating of Kikuyu who refuse to take the oath,
and the burning of huts and villages. At first Rachel ignores these bulletins, attempting to settle into daily life at Kisima with her beloved dog, Juno, for company. Even
after she befriends Harold, Sara’s teenage son, Rachel is blindsided by a world
where boundaries are rapidly being drawn between the white settlers and the Africans.
McVeigh gives us descriptions of stunning clarity of the Kenyan landscape as well as the personalities that people the drama--particularly Michael, Robert’s Kikuyu mechanic who tutored Rachel when she was a little girl and now seems like “a stranger”
lying outside the grasp of Rachel’s knowledge. When Rachel talks to Michael about her mother, “grief turns in her chest like an animal shifting in its nest.” Yet Michael’s strength and stillness have a calming effect on Rachel, a physical grace that cannot be corrupted by the fears of other men. Michael and Rachel’s bourgeoning attraction will set off a chain of catastrophic events, actions balanced against the terror of the increasing Mau Mau, the tragedy that will come to haunt Sara, the evil machinations of Steven Lockhart--who makes it known that wants something from Rachel--and the fears contained by night’s darkness that seem to melt away with the sun.
Pain and death are everywhere in this novel. While it may sound as though
this book is too sad to bear, at the same time, the narrative is often too
beautiful for words. McVeigh’s competent storytelling and capacity for empathy
really give Leopard at the Door its emotional heft as Rachel is caught somewhere
between her loyalty to her family and to the natives. Like a rabbit hole “turned
inside out,” Rachel is inhabited by ghouls and ghosts, by the
strangers who sit where her mother sat, a world in which the African protectors
of her childhood have become killers. Somewhere at the bottom of this is a sense
of forewarning, of displacement, an oppressive atmosphere of malevolence wrapped up in the quote: “Kenya is a black man’s country...You should go back to where you belong.”