This lush, dark story set in 1920s Kenya is full of heat and glamour. And in the hedonistic lives of the wealthy English set who live in the splendour and beauty of colonial Africa, waited on by black servants as they lounge in their gorgeous homes, there are, of course, many stinging serpents.
Such luxury, ease and wealth is all going to go wrong, isn’t it? And it does
This is the story of 14-year-old Theo Miller, a bright ambitious adolescent who arrives by train with his parents and younger sister Maude into Nairobi’s simmering heat. Their father is a railway director, loving, but upright and stern. Their mother is distant, very strange, and beautiful.
The year is 1925. When the young Scottish family steps off the train they head for the Norfolk Hotel. There they meet Freddie Hamilton, a rich English aristocrat, and his fascinating, glamorous companion, American heiress Sylvie de Croy. Both are married, but not to each other. Extra-marital affairs are tolerated and even encouraged in Kenya’s Happy Valley set, made famous by the film White Mischief.
Freddie and Sylvie are based on two real-life characters, Josslyn Hay, earl of Erroll, and Alice de Janze. These two were involved in a notorious ex-pat Kenyan murder mystery, their lives resembling the characters in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Rich, sensuous, selfish and hedonistic, they lived only for themselves.
Kat Gordon’s novel also begins with a murder, although we don’t find out who died until the end of the book. In the meantime we follow the coming of age of unhappy Theo, bullied at school and teased as ‘pretty boy’. But Freddie and Sylvie think he’s beautiful, a great find, and swiftly introduce him into their Happy Valley set of louche aristos and millionaires.
Of course the original Happy Valley set were notorious for their scandalous behaviour. Theo becomes fatally enthralled by their glamorous lifestyle. He grows ever-more handsome, his head turned by their attention, and bored and uninterested in his own dull, solid parents.
He grows quickly into a highly sophisticated young man, deeply sexually attracted to Sylvie.
Meanwhile as Theo grows steadily more and more debauched, his sister Maude, seven years younger, thrives in a completely different, healthier way. She adores the beautiful landscape and enthralling wildlife, but unlike her brother Maude is a serious and thoughtful person. She sees their luxurious lives as wasteful, hates the racism suffered by their servants, and distrusts the lifestyle of Theo’s sordid set.
She also discovers politics. Freddie, like his true-life counterpart the earl of Error, has links to British fascist Oswald Mosely, and the paradise of 1930s Kenya becomes increasingly touched and troubled by the impending Second World War.
Gordon has written a completely captivating historical novel, steeped in the bewitching glamour and beauty of Kenya, and the sexual excesses of the rich ex-pats who lived there. The lush landscape is so vividly portrayed you can almost taste it. Judy and I both loved this book.