I was ready for a good chunk of a novel – not genre, not froth, not gimmick, not avant garde. And by chunk, I’m not talking about heft, but rather, density, depth, a novel that you unpack as you read. A novel that ends before you want it to. Are you with me? I just wanted a dadblamed book!
So…..you know that first line thing, lines that get the job done? Well, here’s one. “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot.” Let the unpacking begin. The Dragon Lady is Virginia Courtauld (Gini), wife of Stephen Courtauld, and the dragon is not a dragon. It is a snake, a fearsome serpent, tattooed up the side of her leg. Scandalous. How far up it goes no one knows except Stephen. Did such a tattoo ever exist? Not sure about that, but Gini and Stephen did, and The Dragon Lady is a fictionalization of their lives – Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld. In fact, their home, La Rochelle in what was then Rhodesia, is now a hotel.
Stephen’s family is British and very wealthy. To be more precise, they are upright folks, filthy, stinking rich, and so is he. He’s a WWI vet (with flashbacks), a highly principled man, involved in the Arts, devoted to Gini, and he spends gobs and gobs of money. Gini, well, she is already tattooed when she marries Stephen. She is wealthy, too, but not as, and it’s upstart wealth. Also, she’s half Italian, half Romanian. Hmmm. Antecedents are so important, you know. A fascinating, mysterious woman and a bit of a social climber, but, to her disappointment, she never quite makes the cut. As a couple they are genuine, liberal, philanthropic and always, always controversial.
The book moves back and forth in time from the 1920s to an epilogue in the 90s, but focuses on Stephen and Gini in Rhodesia in the 1950s. They move to Africa for a new start, and build a beautiful home only to find that native Africans are held in dreadful contempt, and white society is both fearful and fearfully racist. The Courtaulds reach out for ways to help. They start a Home and Craft Center for native women, a school for African children, a model farm teaching agricultural methods; they build a theater and an art gallery. However, as you well know, no good deed goes unpunished. Stephen is ultimately knighted for his work, but they gain only anger and animosity from their white neighbors.
Oh damn, I hope I haven’t managed to make a slam dunk sound boring. And I was off to such a good start, too. Trust me, Rhodesia, a powder keg at that time, cannot be boring. Neither can Stephen and Gini. Nor can a ghost, a pet lemur, ladies who smoke slim cigarettes and people who – as if in a Noel Coward play – call each other “darling”. The very names of African trees will make your eyes light up. And did I mention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor? This, my darlings, is a book.
Book your trip to Rhodesia and the past on August 13 when The Dragon Lady hits bookstore shelves. Support your local indie bookstore if you like by pre-ordering here.
Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA / Bloomsbury Caravel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.