Thursday, 15 September 2016

Review: The Dhow House - Jean McNeil

This month from Legend Press I opted to read The Dhow House by Jean McNeil, a novel about an English doctor, Rebecca, who has been forced to take leave from her position at an East African field hospital. The majority of the book follows Rebecca’s time at an aunt’s house in Africa, as she gets to know her family and the luxurious life they lead, worlds away from Rebecca’s previous realities.

Threaded through this main plotline are episodes from and reflections on the past, through which we gradually learn about Rebecca’s late mother, Rebecca’s career history, and what exactly caused her to leave her previous position.

Through this exploration of largely fictional locations, McNeil places Rebecca’s two experiences of Africa side by side, often highlighting the triviality of Rebecca’s family’s extravagant lifestyle in comparison to the gruesome reality of war and the terrorism that threatens both sides. These racial conflicts are a complex issue to address, and Rebecca has many conversations, both verbal and internal, trying to make sense of her surroundings and wondering if her uncle is in fact “a man fed on colonial fat”. Can her white family who have lived in Africa for decades, truly believe themselves to be African?

However, it is not these racial issues that seem to be the integral focus of the novel, but instead Rebecca’s plethora of complex relationships. There is the troubled relationship she had with her mother, the somewhat distanced relationship she has with her aunt as a consequence of her mother’s behaviour, her troubling growing attraction for her younger cousin, and the complex relationship she has with those she treats in the field hospital, where there is no prejudice towards who they treat, good or evil. But perhaps most prominently, the novel traces Rebecca’s complex relationship with herself, or many selves.

“She had realised that the self was not one coherent entity after all, that there might be several selves, and no way to know which was the real one; that the discovery of the unconscious self was like the birth of a new and thrilling persona.”

As a result of this it is difficult as a reader to form an understanding of Rebecca. Though she is both the protagonist and occasionally the narrator, she is never quite sure of herself, or her many selves. Rebecca is distanced culturally from her newfound family and she has also semi-consciously distanced herself from what came before, and this in turn creates a cloudy space between Rebecca and the reader.

McNeil’s novel is sophisticatedly and intricately written. The pages are full of natural descriptions as Rebecca revels in the wildlife that surrounds her, and any discussion of human feelings or behaviour is laced with psychoanalysis and construed through metaphor. Though Rebecca clearly has a very intelligent outlook on life, it does make for a laborious read at times.

By the end of the novel you’re not really sure what to think. Your feelings towards Rebecca and her actions, her family and the political state of Africa are left unresolved. But oddly, not in a frustrating way. By the end of 300 pages of it, you’ve kind of come to accept things the way they are, almost in the same way that Rebecca comes to accept many of the events in her life exactly as they are.

*I was sent this book in exchange for a review but all words and opinions are my own. 

1 comment

  1. Great review! I'm intrigued. Gonna check out this book for next months TBR!


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