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Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

Paris, 1923 

The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather's savannah manor house until gossip subsides. 

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.  

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.  

Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.

There is almost too much to say about Deanna Raybourn's newest novel, A Spear of Summer Grass. I've enjoyed her writing before, in her Lady Julia Gray mystery novels, but, as much as I loved those novel and recommend them to fellow readers regularly, this novel has stolen my heart.

The novel, set in the 1920s, begins in Paris, but quickly relocates to Africa. Delilah Drummond is no stranger to scandal: her mother has married many times, Delilah herself has been married three, and her latest marriage has once again exposed her to gossip and speculation. In an attempt to avoid the negative effects of this most recent scandal, Delilah leaves Paris for a season in Africa. Africa is not the place Delilah dreamed of as a child, but in many ways it's more... and it has a drama all it's own. In the middle of this foreign landscape, Delilah discovers beauty, danger, love, and, most of important of all, her place in the world.

For many, Delilah may, at least at first, be one of those unlikeable characters. For me, I loved her from the start. She's quite frank and unapologetic about her life and actions. Her peers often find her loose of morals and standards, but that's not at all the reality of the situation. In many ways, I suppose Delilah could be considered a woman before her time. To be truthful, I'm unsure of exactly how female independence and sexuality was viewed in 1920s Europe, but the novel left me with the distinct impression that Delilah was not the norm. She takes lovers (but is never unfaithful during her marriages), stands up for what she believes, and is entirely capable (and willing) to do "a man's work." 

I especially loved her character's history. She, like all the characters in the novel, are complex and layered. All of her actions and beliefs are rooted in something in her history, which one can assume is true of all characters, but Raybourn  is especially skilled at weaving a character's tale in a believable, elegant fashion. Little by little, I felt that I came to know and understand Delilah, and, while I feel that A Spear of Summer Grass had a satisfying conclusion, I loathed leaving her behind.

I can't say I've ever read a novel that was set in Africa, but, after the descriptions of the landscapes, wildlife, and culture, I've come to love it a bit. Setting the novel here, in the 1900s, also opened up the perfect opportunity for Raybourn to incorporate themes and questions regarding colonialism and women's rights. These are two themes that I have a particular interest in when it comes to literature and I felt that Raybourn did a fantastic job of considering these subjects without being at all overbearing, instead settling for thought provoking and engaging.

Of course, I must touch on the romance within A Spear of Summer Grass. I've always admired Raybourn's deft hand when it comes to romance and the relationship in this novel is no exception. Raybourn takes two extremely flawed characters and fits their broken edges together in a beautiful, redeeming sort of way. The romance between Ryder and Delilah is, without at doubt, one of my all-time favorite romances. 

I cannot recommend A Spear of Summer Grass enough. You'll not be able to leave these characters behind, nor the gorgeous African setting.

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Harlequin MIRA, April 2013, Paperback, ISBN:9780778314394, 370 pgs.


  1. And... I've added this to my already engorged (pleasant word, is it not? ;D) to-read list. This sounds intriguing! And makes me think of the movie Australia, which is not a bad thing.

    I'm surprised this is the first book you've read that is set in Africa. I feel like I've had books set in Africa (sometimes written by Africans, sometimes not) about colonialism and the likes assigned to me since sixth grade. Interesting how education differs between two people who aren't even a full generation apart.



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