A-spear-of-Summer-Grass1Title: A Spear of Summer Grass

Author: Deanna Raybourn

Genre: Historical Romance

Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Publication date: April 30th 2013
Paperback: 384 pages

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.

Stand alone or series: It seems to be the start of a series but can be read as a standalone

How did we get this book: We both got review copies via Netgalley

Format (e- or p-): eARC

Why did we read this book: Thea loved Deanna Raybourn’s previous books (Silent in the Grave and Silent in the Sanctuary) and Ana has always meant to read her books. Plus we both love historical novels!

REVIEW

Ana’s take:

A Spear of Summer Grass starts really well and I loved the main character to start with. Delilah is a scandalous woman, an unrepentant, egotistical, multiple-time divorced in the early 20s. After a recent scandal in Paris, she is exiled to Kenya until gossip dies out.

Of course, this set-up is potentially problematic for two main reasons:

One is that the story could turn into a redemption story because god forbid a female character be unlikable and not-nice. Two is that said redemption will happen because of the Exotic Journey to the Savage Yet Beautiful Africa.

Unfortunately, it all happened exactly as I feared.

My problems with the book started really soon as Delilah set herself up as the voice of modernity opposing her white neighbours in Kenya. That’s when the book just went all over the place. The novel is a messy mixture of anachronism and stereotyping. So we have Delilah, a white female character female who is modern and “different” – she is able to see her fellow white expats as privileged idiots, the treatment of local inhabitants as unfair. But by doing that she also sets herself up their White Saviour, completely idealizing colonialism: she treats the locals with her Expert White Nurse Training; she gives them food, she treats them fairly, she learns their language, etc. These are not necessarily bad things if it wasn’t for the way that the novel portrays all the POC characters as simple people, most of them in Communion With Nature; there is a Wise Man who actually communicates with spirits; and everybody is loyal and grateful to the Good White People.

It is really important when reading historical novels like this to be able to differentiate between what can be construed as accurate portrayals of privilege, colonialism and racism within the novel itself and what is built on stereotypical portrayals that go unchallenged and therefore are perpetuated instead of questioned.

It also doesn’t help that you have these two characters – Delilah and Ryder – talking about this ONE location, its peoples and its beauty as “Africa” as though Africa is not an entire freaking continent.

And then we have the “romance”. This is twofold: the romance that happens between Delilah and Africa; and the one that “develops” between Delilah and the local hunter-stud-rich white man called Ryder White (no, seriously). Both serve to redeem the heroine and her “terrible ways”. She becomes less egotistical when she learns to care for others. Which: fair enough. BUT then it is revealed that she is not in fact the scandalous person she is supposed to be: no, everything is just how people have interpreted her actions wrongly. This could have served as great social commentary about how people view women socially accept it only reinforces those same traditional views by making Delilah “innocent”. The romance between Delilah and Ryder is also a no-go from me: it starts with him actually threatening to rape her and ends with her learning everything about him through third parties who help her decide to marry him because He Deserves Her Love. Or something equally disingenuous like that.

I also felt really, REALLY uncomfortable about the way domestic abuse is portrayed in the novel. There is one character that is constantly abused and beaten up by her husband and the characters including Delilah, our heroine, and the wife herself are all into victim blaming:

“I was only a little surprised Jude was still living with her husband after he had beaten her. I had known my share of women mistreated by their men. But they were all tormented creatures, with eyes like caged animals and a tightly wound intensity that burned them inside. Jude was different, cool as a mountain lake, and I suspected she stayed with Wickenden because his beatings couldn’t really touch her. Perhaps that was WHY he beat her. Some men can only stand to be ignored for so long before they have to do something about it.”

The narrative itself does nothing at all do dispel this idea.

Despite its promising beginning this turned out to be terrible – to be honest, I only kept reading because I couldn’t look away from the train wreck.

Thea’s Take:

It pains me to say this because I loved Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey books, but I sadly, wholeheartedly agree with Ana. I was intrigued by the premise of this book, although that intrigue was tempered with fear – because, as Ana says, this is a book about a rich white woman going to Africa and becoming a Better Person and… well, that often spells disaster.

First, let me start with the good: I loved the flawed prickly character of Delilah. I love that she is in control, that she doesn’t give a damn about what other people think (in fact, she thrives on scandal and loves herself a good time). Most of all, I loved how sexually comfortable Delilah is in her own skin – she knows her effect on men, and she uses her charms to get in her kicks. Similarly strong is Deanna Raybourn’s writing, which is as lovely as ever in this book, and she manages to create a group of interesting characters and we watch their lives unfold in a comfortable, natural way.

That said, even these high points could not save A Spear of Summer Grass from its deeply problematic issues.

My problems with this book are threefold:

  1. The Treatment of Women – which could have been AWESOME but turned into rape-y, wife-beating apologist crap
  2. The Treatment of “Africa” – exoticism and glorification of colonialism of the White Man
  3. The Treatment of the Indigenous Populations of Nairobi (and of ANY people of color for that matter) – the book imposes interesting/frightening situations of colonialism and white superiority, does not CHALLENGE these ideas at all

So let’s start with women. In this book, there is one particular character who is beaten by her husband. This character doesn’t really CARE that she is beaten because, and I quote:

“The hitting?” She rolled onto her back and stretched. “I feel sorry for him sometimes. He just doesn’t know any way to reach me. ”

“He hits you and you feel sorry for him?”

“He loves me more than he’s ever loved anything in his entire life,” she said, relating the words in her cool passionless voice. “All he wants is to touch me, to move something inside of me so that I will love him back [...] Haven’t you ever seen a small boy trying to get his mother’s attention? He’ll tug at her skirts and call her name, and if she ignores him, he’ll just get louder and louder, poking and pinching until she sees him.”

NO. At a different part of the book, Delilah is teasing Ryder (SERIOUSLY HIS NAME IS RYDER. With the “y.”), thinking about getting hot and heavy. When she refuses him, he tells her:

“You understand that we’re alone out here, don’t you, Delilah? There’s not a soul within screaming distance, nobody to hear you, nobody to help you. I could violate you sixty different ways and throw you out for the hyenas to have their way with before anybody ever noticed you were gone.”

This turns Delilah on. Then, later in the book, Delilah is getting it on with Ryder and when he refuses to go the distance, this happens:

“That’s it? That’s all I get? you’ll let me get you good and ready, but then you won’t use it to repay the favour? Naughty, naughty, Ryder. Didn’t anyone ever teach you it’s not nice to be selfish?”

His hands were clenching and unclenching on his thighs. “I don’t hit women,” he said, half to himself.

“But you’d like to,” I went on, softly. “You’d like to put something into me, and if it isn’t going to be what we both want, why not your fist?”

I ground out my cigarette on my boot and stood close to him. I picked up his hand, that closed, fisted hand, and I opened it, coaxing the fingers to spread wide. His palm was open and flat, vulnerable, and I pressed my mouth into it, nipping lightly with my teeth.

AGAIN, NO. Rape-threatening and woman-beating is NOT hot. This is NOT an attractive trait in a hero (or heroine). Just, NO.

Next, there’s the exoticism of “Africa” – in quotes because COME ON, it’s a CONTINENT not a SINGLE TOWN or country! A Spear of Summer Grass is the most crude, textbook example of exoticism of a place and its people. Africa – ALL of Africa! – is portrayed as a savage but beautiful land, lorded over and being saved by its white aristocratic colonists. These colonists must feed, cure, and educate the indigenous people (heck, even Delilah is a skilled nurse, in addition to being a party gal with deadeye sharpshooter skills). The different tribes are portrayed as ignorant, simple people of the land, ever so grateful for the white man’s help (because otherwise they’d surely perish). Even the non-African characters of color get this treatment – the Indian characters are similarly meek and simple-natured. The fact that Delilah and Ryder (and Jude to some extent) are the only characters that see this is BAD and fight for the rights of the poor, hapless people of color only reinforces this awful white savior stereotype.

The only difference I have here compared to Ana? I could not bring myself to finish this book. It’s a big fat DNF for me.

Rating:

Ana: 3 – Horrible

Thea: DNF – Did Not Finish

Reading Next: Terrier by Tamora Pierce

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13 Responses to Joint Review: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

  1. K. says:

    Great, insightful review both! I think the topics/issues you two mention about “Africa” (or colonialism in general) are always going to be delicate. I think writers should take care not to rely on the same old structure of historical fictions, especially ones that deals with such matters. It only ends up being unoriginal, inaccurate, teeth-grindingly offensive and not to mention pretentious! Again, great review.

  2. Malin says:

    Thank you both for you insightful reviews. This makes me really sad, because I really like most of her Lady Julia Grey books (although I suspect the series is running out of interesting things for her to do with the characters, and I wasn’t super enthused about the end of the last book), and I was excited to hear that she was trying something new. Oh well, think I’ll give it a miss now.

  3. jenmitch says:

    It is astonishing to me that books like this are still being written — that nowhere in the pipeline between an author’s “idea” and final publication does anyone say, “um, maybe we could stop perpetuating rape culture and victim blaming? oh and while we’re at it, tone down the racism/colonialism a bit, too?” Where are the editors? Why does this crap persist? Oh right, because people keep buying it. Well I’m glad at least that you two are a voice of reason… thanks for the thorough and insightful review.

  4. Bonnie says:

    Wow, those quotes you included about the treatment of women make me want to throw this out immediately. That is not something I’d like to read about, no thank you. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Angie says:

    I’m still mystified at the whole thing. I don’t understand how it happened. But it was deeply lame all the way around.

  6. Eliza says:

    Okay, this review is the nail in the coffin for the book as far as I’m concerned. I’ve read a couple of bad reviews about this book, so I was leery. However, I find it interesting that while those other reviews stated that the book was boring and/or Delilah was unlikeable, none of them brought up the issues you raised – the glorification of domestic and sexual violence or the inherent racism. Is it because it’s so prevalent in our society that they didn’t notice it? Or is it because it didn’t bother them? Either one is disturbing. Anyway, this gets a big NO from me and is now deleted from my TBR list

    It is really important when reading historical novels like this to be able to differentiate between what can be construed as accurate portrayals of privilege, colonialism and racism within the novel itself and what is built on stereotypical portrayals that go unchallenged and therefore are perpetuated instead of questioned.

    This is a very fine line to write and hard to do. While it depends on the context of the book, you can have a character or social group espouse beliefs that currently are no longer acceptable (e.g., racism) but it’s when those beliefs spill into the fabric of the book and that stain is woven into the story such that the book itself becomes racist (e.g., referring to a single town or country as Africa) rather than the character(s) that it becomes objectionable. Let’s face it, there are all sorts of people out there who hold differing views some of which are ugly and socially acceptable (either today or at that point in time) and it is the duty of the writer to portray them but hopefully in such a way as to shed light on those beliefs but not to espouse them.

  7. Meghan says:

    I adore the Julia Grey books and I’m really sorry to read that this book is such a mess in so many ways. I’m definitely going to give it a miss now. I’d avoided most other reviews but those faults are just not redeemable in my eyes. Like some of the other comments say – how do these get missed on the way to publication? How is this considered okay?

  8. Karen says:

    Thanks to a review by Angie, I canceled my pre-order several weeks ago. Your review confirms that I was saved from reading A Spear of Summer Grass. Thanks you!

    I adore the Julia Grey novels, so it’s disappointing to read the weird excerpts here. The line about men needing to do something after being ignored was silly. The character’s carefree attitude about being hit is also silly and a total turn off. And, seriously, there’s no excuse for a novel to be published in 2013 that portrays African tribes “as ignorant, simple people of the land, ever so grateful for the white man’s help (because otherwise they’d surely perish).” One would hope a writer would want to say something new here and not perpetuate this belief. Makes me wonder if the editor didn’t know any better, or decided Deanna’s readers wouldn’t know any better. Sounds lazy and irresponsible.

  9. library says:

    Deanna Raybourn’s latest tale is a bit different from her previous books. A Spear of Summer Grass is not set in Victorian England like her Lady Julia Grey stories. Instead, we are shown the beauty and wildness of Kenya in the 1920s through the eyes of Delilah Drummond.

    In order to wait out certain family scandal, Delilah’s family forces her to abscond from London. She chooses to go to Africa, a place that her step-father has romanticized. While beautiful and exotic, Africa presents many challenges to Delilah, all of which she handles masterfully, albeit a bit hot-headedly at times. She has no fear of guns nor of speaking her mind. At first, Delilah reminded me of a character from an Edith Wharton or Theodore Dreiser novel, but she grows and the story becomes one of redemption, forgiveness, and the letting go of past demons. She is such a diverse and profound character. At times, I wanted to hate her, especially the cavalier way she seemingly treats love and marriage. But then, she does something that instantly redeems her, and I love her again. I was enthralled, wanting to know what made her tick.

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  12. KMont says:

    Count me in as another who can’t believe books like this are still being written.

    Also, is all that blog spam-a-lama creeping past everyone’s spam filers lately? I’m constantlyhaving to delete it off mine now.

    Anyway, sorry this book turned out so disappointingly for both of you.

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