To believe colonialism is a relic of the past is as absurd as believing we live in a post-racial society. This is one of the lessons learned in Andrea Lee’s Red Island House, a novel set in the villages and on the beaches of Madagascar. Reading this book reminded me at times of the novels of E.M. Forster, or Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Privileged people behaving badly in a country that is not their own, all irrevocably set in the past. But the beauty of Red Island House is that it is now, spanning a time from the early nineties to present day. Colonialism and its legacies are alive and well, though our understanding of it may be more complex.
At the center of this narrative is Shay, a Black American woman and the wife of Senna, an Italian businessman and prospector. Prior to their marriage, Senna builds a grand red house in the fictional village of Naratrany. He declares his new wife mistress of the house, as do the house’s domestic staff and surrounding villagers. Shay, an accomplished college professor in Milan, accepts with doubt. And though Madagascar is a mere vacation home year after year, Shay finds herself drawn into relationships with its people and its culture, and is left to question whether she is truly culpable in the widespread poverty and misfortune experienced by the island’s true residents.
Shay’s identity as a wealthy Black woman sets her apart from both the native Malagasy people, as well as the white travelers and settlers from France, Italy, and other nations. While racism and prejudice are sometimes directed her way, she mostly remains a witness. She ruminates on colonialism and its impact on the native Malagasy people, such as the worship of blonde hair, the prevalence of old white men with Malagasy mistresses, and the rapid development of land into resorts and houses. At one point, she is conflicted about inviting a young Malagasy woman and sex worker to dine with them. At the end of the meals she realizes that this woman, “the unwanted guest, the girl packaged as cheap merchandise, was the true heiress of the land on which they all sat feasting”.
Yet for all her thought, Shay rarely acts, yearning for much of the novel to be an eternal tourist. Transient. Not responsible. It is easy to fault her for this choice, but Lee shows us the complexities and consequences of this inaction as the years go by. Shay too has her own fires to fight—her faltering marriage, her friendship with the enigmatic Bertine, raising two children caught between cultures. The novel is at its best when it focuses on Shay, her growth and change, and on the real or imagined magic pervading the island.
At times the novel changes course, becoming what feels like a set of short stories telling the tale of other island residents. We’re shown the Sirens, Marisa and Giusy, and their never-ending feud. Maz, the handsome yet tortured skipper. Senna’s various elderly playboy friends. While these journeys are engaging, they take us away from Shay’s narrative and can feel meandering at times.
Nevertheless, Naratrany is a captivating setting, made more so by Andrea Lee’s choice in narration. Rather than a conventional third person narration focused on Shay, Lee takes a few steps back and tells Shay’s story like a fable for the ages. Rhetorical questions, such as “how has this peculiar quest come about?” add a wisdom to the unknown narrator, and this broadens our expectations of the story. It is with this framework that the diversions into different lives work. This is a novel of Naratrany, of Madagascar, and its varied people.
Red Island House is a difficult work to characterize: part novel, part collection, part epic. Lee shows us a new setting, its natural beauty and stark class divisions, and its rich culture and settler exploitation. By centering Shay she shows us the nuance of privilege and culpability. She takes care to focus on the voices of foreigners, stating in a detailed author’s note her deep affection for Malagasy literature and the need for own voices narratives. More than anything, Andrea Lee shows us that the conversation on colonialism is far from over, and far from one-dimensional. To acknowledge its presence is to acknowledge how many of us, in one way or another, have a small part to play.
Red Island House
By Andrea Lee
Scribner Book Company
Published March 23, 2021
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms