Book Review Time: Red Island House

I debated with myself on whether or not I should write a review for this novel so soon after reading it. Not to say, I didn’t like Red Island House. Quite the contrary. I loved it. The story is captivating and lush not unlike the tropical environment it is primarily set in. But the novel left me with a gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach. It left me with questions that have no easy answers, which was likely Andrea Lee’s intention for every reader of this mesmerizing work.

Red Island House is a novel. Yet in many ways its style is reminiscent of a collection of short stories. Each chapter is marked by specific moments in time, specific conflicts. The main characters remain the same. But there is a revolving cast of supporting players that provide a distinct tenor to each section of the novel. The chapters are ultimately bound together by the shared themes of race, identity, status, and the persistent stain of colonialism.

Red Island House follows the life of Shay Senna, a Black-American expatriate and scholar. By nature, Shay is inquisitive. Daring. So when she meets a wealthy Italian businessman with charm to spare and a similar taste for adventure, love blooms and marriage soon follows. However, Shay will come to learn that her husband is a man of many mysteries. And she will find herself both intrigued and confounded, when he presents her with a vacation villa, referred to as The Red House, along the shores of Madagascar. Shay would prefer to remain a curious “tourist” on the African island. And this preference immediately puts her at odds with her new role as mistress of The Red House, a garish symbol of unchecked extravagance arguably built on stolen land. As Shay struggles to find sure footing, tensions in her marriage grow. And always present, is a weight on her shoulders. Something akin to guilt. The conflict of being in a position of privilege and wealth in a country hammered by poverty.  Over the course of 20 years, Shay’s seasonal sojourns to Madagascar are explored in all of their complexities, providing a unique perspective on the Black-American experience. Andrea Lee exposes the complicated relationship that some Black-Americans have with Africa. Through the character of Shay we witness the obvious recognition of the racial and ancestral ties to the continent. Yet, there is also an acceptance that she will never be privy to the deep secrets of the land and its people. She will always be an outsider.

Wow! Where do I even begin? Andrea Lee is brilliant. Her ability to create, with words, the most vivid and sensual tableaux immediately drew me into the story. At times, I felt like I was in the beach village described, witnessing all of the drama taking place. And, believe me, Red Island House is not lacking in drama. Andrea Lee is fearless in addressing difficult subject matter. Race plays a predominant role in the novel. And the optics are clear. We see the European investors infiltrating the country, shmoozing with corruptible politicians, buying up land, destroying the natural crops, and building vacation resorts, all the while claiming that their efforts will bring more economy to the country. However, that prosperity rarely trickles down from their pockets to native-born working-class people, the most vulnerable of which often turn to the sex tourism industry in order to make a living. It’s colonialism 2.0. And it doesn’t escape the keen eye of the novel’s protagonist.

Shay is an intellectual and highly observant. I appreciated the way she draws parallels between her life as mistress of a villa in a foreign land, and that of a mistress on an antebellum American plantation. She is in a position of privilege, and there are times when she indulges in that privilege. But just as often, she finds it repugnant. It was interesting to see her work through these conflicting emotions. 

As the mother of mixed race sons, I strongly related to Shay’s concern for her own children. The act of raising these beautiful human beings with sinuous backgrounds. Your genuine hope for them is that they recognize and appreciate all that they are- and every bit of what went into making them who they are. Yet you are simultaneously aware that the outside world will continue to bristle under such intricacies. 

And the questions remain. Why do we allow history to repeat itself? How can we dismantle pernicious systems that support the continued elevation of a powerful few at the expense of so many? Andrea Lee doesn’t claim to have the answers. Nevertheless, her extraordinary voice demands an audience.

Thought-provoking, mystifying, exotic…a must read! Red Island House by Andrea Lee.


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