Delilah Drummond, the feisty and opinionated heroine of New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn’s second stand-alone novel, A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, has had a lot of practice getting her way. But although her name often appears front page and center in the gossip tabloids for a wide range of salacious indignities --- stealing a car outside a Harlem nightclub and driving it into the Hudson River, swimming nude in the Seine, potentially murdering her third husband for his family jewels after her first husband died in World War I and she divorced the second --- Delilah isn’t a miscreant or a hard-nosed criminal. In fact, quite the opposite.
"[Raybourn] succeeds in telling a genuinely interesting story about a strong, fiercely independent woman --- and a country --- on the verge of life-changing transformation."
Set first in Paris and then in the sweeping plains of Eastern Africa in the early 1920s, A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS is, on the surface, a whirlwind tale of Delilah’s adventures following her banishment to her stepfather’s crumbling savanna estate in Kenya because of bad behavior in Paris (and everywhere else: “the world could be a hard place on a girl who was just out for a little fun”). Much like in her Lady Julia Grey series, Raybourn fills the story with gobs of sensuous details that keep the pages turning --- Delilah’s trysts with an artist down the road who sketches her wearing nothing aside from a black sash tied around her wrist, her playful flirtations with various dignitaries and white landowners (think lots of eyelash batting and witty banter), and (most enjoyably) her sexual tension-filled relationship with Ryder, a local guide with rough hands and a guarded heart.
Congruously, the dialogue isn’t too shabby either: “I do what I like with whomever I like, and I don’t give a tinker’s damn what anybody thinks about it,” Delilah says to Ryder in a particularly heated moment. “But I’m not just a carnival prize you win for putting your ball in the hole, and I’m nobody’s notch on a bedpost. I don’t belong to anybody but myself and I am never a sure thing.”
But underneath Raybourn’s knack for racy writing lies a deeper drama unfolding -- that of racial, economic and political upheaval in Africa. Although it’s never written about directly and only used as a backdrop to Delilah’s story, Raybourn weaves in details about Kenya’s fight for independence from England, and the economic disparity between various ethnic groups and between whites and blacks. The accurate picture she paints is one of white colonists lavishly ruling the roost while the Masai, the Kikuyu, and other minority groups struggle to get by. While Delilah is portrayed perhaps just a smidge too much like the sharp-tongued Florence Nightingale of Nairobi and its environs, it’s hard not to root for her as she prances around the dusty plains in her fancy linens and lipstick smile, and wins just about every battle she wages against the wrongdoers in charge, including stepping forward as the star suspect in a late-to-develop murder case to protect a wrongly accused Masai.
A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS has all the makings of another Harlequin bestseller; it’s sexy, flashy, and (of course) the latter scenes between Ryder and Delilah are primed to make any romance reader blush. But there’s never an excessively raunchy (i.e. excessively corny) moment, and Raybourn adds enough heft (including stunning descriptions of the African countryside and its animal inhabitants) to balance out the drama. Above all, she succeeds in telling a genuinely interesting story about a strong, fiercely independent woman --- and a country --- on the verge of life-changing transformation.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on May 3, 2013