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The Books behind Leopard at the Door

“In the biggest, brownest, muddiest river in Africa…” The Enormous Crocodile waded into my four year old life with a terrifying snap of his jaws and a reckless disdain for morality as I knew it. He wasn’t just eating children because he was hungry. He was eating them because it was fun. And I was thrilled. So began a lifelong love of the wild spaces and wild creatures of Africa.

When I was twelve my father took me to East Africa on safari. We rode horses across the Mara in Kenya, camping at night under a sky glittering with stars, listening to the low grunts of a lion carry far across the plains. We galloped alongside herds of zebra, clouds blackening into storm – the grasslands lit up beneath to an iridescent gold, and I remember thinking – as my horse pounded under me – that there could never be anywhere in the world as beautiful as this. We chased ostrich, and – on a hot day – stripped the saddles off our sweat-soaked horses and pushed them deep into a lake, where hippos blew water into the sun-drenched air, until our horses’ hooves left the ground and it felt as though we were flying. I fell madly in love with the raw simplicity of the life, with all its danger and isolation.

It might have seemed the natural thing to write that passion into a novel, but it hasn’t always been easy to escape the stereotypes which dog any book about colonial East Africa. I knew I wanted to evoke the beauty of the landscape, and – uneasy though it made me – the romance of the settlers who first braved the wild to farm in remote corners of the rift valley, but I didn’t want to be sucked into yet another Happy Valley romp about white farmers living like aristocrats on land which was not their own. At University I had read as much post colonial theory as I could get my hands on. Heart of Darkness shed a new light on the Africa of my childhood – here were Europeans in spotless white suits, and Africans in chain gangs. The colonial vision was rotten at its core – Africa was not a place about which one could spin fantasies. I saw that there was a darker side to the European experience in Kenya which didn’t appear in the tourist brochures; something hidden and degenerate which Blixen and Hemmingway – with their white hunters and big game safaris – had omitted. If I was going to write something, it would have to be something real; a story which would explode the myths.

When I stumbled upon a suitcase containing documents and photographs from Kenya in the 1950s, one phrase leapt out at me: Mau Mau. I did some research and learnt that it was a political rebellion fuelled by the Kikuyu, who claimed they had lost their land to white settlers. Here was the unsettling reality which had been ironed out of the colonial narrative. I began to read widely around the period and learnt what life was like for black Kenyans living under British rule. A Grain of Wheat – Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s story of Kenya’s fight for independence – was a watershed moment for me. It remains one the most arresting and beautifully crafted novels I have read, and for the first time I was reading a book which wasn’t from an Imperial, European perspective. There were many others which followed; memoirs of Mau Mau detainees who had fought for their freedom; memoirs of whites living on isolated game farms, vulnerable to Mau Mau attacks; the work of the brilliant Gerald Hanley who wrote so well about fighting with East African soldiers in Burma, and the effect of the holocaust on the African imagination.

Slowly a story stirred itself into life. It was a story which would peel back the myths – the glamour and the gin slings – so that I could write about the real Kenya. It was a story which would contravene every unspoken rule of Colonial society, and bring together two people from profoundly different backgrounds – a Kikuyu man and the daughter of a white farmer. And it was a story which – though it had come about quite by chance – would embody my own uneasy response to a country which had stolen my heart.

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November 27, 2017

Target (USA) Picks Leopard at the Door for its Book Club

May 01, 2017

Kathryn Hughes Praises Leopard at the Door: “Right from the deliciously descriptive prologue, I knew I was in for a treat with this book. Jennifer McVeigh manages to transport the reader right to the heart of Africa with her vivid atmospheric prose.”

June 09, 2017

Kate Furnivall Praises Leopard at the Door: "This is a book that will steal your heart. It is a wonderful, stunning, heart-wrenching tale of love, danger and self-discovery. Jennifer McVeigh's descriptions of life in Kenya are electric in intensity and open up the world of Africa in vivid detail in a way that totally beguiled me. I couldn't put it down. It took me places I have never been before. A powerful, painful and brilliant book."

February 15, 2017

Publishers Weekly praises Leopard at the Door: "Captivating and thought-provoking. McVeigh’s beautiful prose and harrowing plot will quickly absorb readers by sensitively approaching themes of race, cultural evolution, and the humanness that unites us all."

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