Review: A Spear of Summer Grass

ASOSG-388x590Paris, 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.
 

You know the saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover”? Even in this case, it is true. A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS contains every bit the exoticism, beauty, and romance evoked in the picture above AND MORE. The beautifully composed story inside is breathtaking — beyond anything an artist could capture on canvas. Filled with decadence, danger, passion, and heartbreak, it is the tale of a glamorous and damaged woman’s journey of self discovery.

As the summary suggests, the notorious Delilah Drummond is not your typical heroine. In fact, when we first meet the thrice wed, sleek, sexy, make no apologies flapper, her conduct seems anything BUT befitting a protagonist. Delilah’s latest scandal has resulted in the threat of legal action and, desperate to avoid unwanted attention from the press and her grandfather’s snip of the purse strings, it is decided that Delilah’s best bet is to lay low for awhile… in Africa.

Delilah sets off for her former step-father’s estate in Kenya with her cousin, and dutiful chaperone, Dora in tow. A study in contrasts, Dora is as dull as Delilah is dynamic, and some of the wittiest moments in this novel occur at the expense of poor old “Dodo”. But like the yin and yang, there is balance in the contrast between the cousins; they are two opposites that co-exist in harmony (for the most part) and it is through Delilah’s interactions with Dora that we catch our first glimpse of what lies beneath Delilah’s powdered and painted party girl veneer.

Delilah and Dora are as different as night and day, but our headstrong heroine and our hero, J. Ryder White, are very similar indeed. Just like Delilah, Ryder has a commanding yet easy presence, and sex appeal that nearly lights the pages on fire. He is as mysterious as he is skilled at navigating the harsh and beautiful land of Africa. And to the surprise of the “Princess” who ‘… collected [handsome men’s smiles] like other women collected air to breathe.’(141), Delilah quickly discovers that she has met her match in the game of seduction.

As she adjusts to her temporary life in exile, Delilah finds that Africa holds many more surprises. With old acquaintances settled nearby, the creature comforts of Paris — champagne, gossip, and dalliance — are still very much within her grasp.  But as she is thrust into a role of responsibility, forming alliances with Ryder and people of neighboring tribes, Delilah can no longer ignore the pull of Africa and the things that truly matter.

One of the strongest characters in this novel is Africa itself; the harsh, relentless beauty of the land and its creatures, the diversity and strength of its people. In a beautifully poetic way, Deanna Raybourn paints a vibrant picture of Africa as grand and breathtaking as a Thomas Cole landscape: “The sun was dipping low to the ground, brushing the last of its warm rays over the shimmering surface, and turning the waters to molten gold. A flock of flamingos rose suddenly, flashing their gaudy feathers in a pink farewell as they departed. Across the lake a hippopotamus wore a crown of water lilies draped drunkenly over one eye and munched contentedly as a light breeze ruffled the lake water. I took a deep breath and saw, for just an instant, the Africa I had thought to find. Then, in a violent burst of crimson and gold, the sun shimmered hotly on the lake and was gone, sinking below the horizon, leaving only purple-blue shadows lengthening behind.”(80)

There are so many things I love about this book, but if I had to narrow it down to one, it would be the character Delilah. I found her anything BUT hard to love. She is decadent, confident, sexy, bold, and witty. She is vulnerable, caring, broken, and scarred. Deanna Raybourn did a wonderful job of constructing such a well-rounded, multi-layered heroine. As the crowning jewel, Delilah sits at the top of my list of favorite characters.

Of course, I must say that my affection for Ryder also runs deep and strong. Raybourn first offered us a taste of this delicious character in the prequel enovella FAR IN THE WILDS. Whether or not you read it before A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, rest assured, you will be left wanting more of Mr. J. Ryder White.

Known for her Lady Julia Grey series (one of my favorites), Deanna Raybourn has raised the bar with this stand-alone — which I desperately hope will become a series. No one brings words to life like Deanna does. Her novels are not the kind one simply reads, they are the kind one steps into and becomes a part of – breathing the same air as the characters. Reading A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, I was transported by Raybourn’s elegantly poetic prose. And if I look close enough, I just might see smudges of the red dust of Kenya on the pages of my copy.

This is a thing that I know – Deanna Raybourn’s talent is a true gift, to her and to readers.

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