What’s it about?
Theo Miller is fourteen years old when he first sets foot on the dusty Kenyan plains. Neither he nor his sister Maud are ready for the heat and dazzle of 1920s Nairobi and they quickly get swept up in the drama of the ex-pat community.
Theo meets Sylvie de Croÿ and Freddie, Lord Hamilton. They are magnetically charming and accept the teenager into their inner circle, a whirlwind of glamour and hedonism. Yet behind the allure lies danger, betrayal and violence that is barely kept in check. As storm clouds gather over Kenya, Theo must find his way back to his family before it’s too late.
There’s something intoxicating about this book. The dark glamour of the Happy Valley set, the fascination of 1920s Kenya, and the seething undercurrent of emotion all combine to make this story really very special. I didn’t want it to be over.
With regards to the style, if you think F. Scott Fitzgerald crossed with Karen Blixen, you won’t be far off. At some points, the behaviour of the Happy Valley set was so reminiscent of The Great Gatsby that I felt the characters could have been lifted from some lost Fitzgerald novel. Yet these characters were largely based on real people (Sylvie on Alice de Janzé – even her daughters’ names are the same) so the plot inspiration is probably minimal here.
Gordon has certainly done her research. The descriptions of Nairobi are wonderfully evocative; you can almost feel the heat rising from the pages. The way she writes about the land and the animals is beautifully expressive; there’s a particular encounter with a leopard that stopped my breath. The people are also well-depicted. It would clearly have helped that Gordon had a wealth of source material to draw from, but her skill in putting them on the page is undeniable. She inspires an odd mix of revulsion and pity through their characterisation, again reminiscent of Fitzgerald. I loved how the sheen on their lives was so easily rubbed away; it made them very real for me.
Then there are the characters of Theo and Maud. As far as I’m aware, they are both entirely fictional and serve as a window to the expat world. We grow and change with Theo, see him become an adult but one unable to shake off his childhood obsession with the Happy Valley set. Through him, we have a glimpse of their world, and through Maud, we have an insight to the Kenyan farming crowd. I won’t give anything away about their lives, except to say that they are subject to forces bigger than them.
Would I recommend it?
Yes, definitely. I’ve already got it earmarked for my mother.
If you enjoy it, there are myriad other works about this subset of Kenyan society. I recommend White Mischief by James Fox and The Bolter by Frances Osborne.
The Hunters by Kat Gordon is published by HarperCollins priced £14.99.
I received an advance copy to review thanks to NetGalley.