From National Book Award–nominated writer Andrea Lee comes Red Island House, a travel epic that opens a window on the mysterious African island of Madagascar, and on the dangers of life and love in paradise, as seen through the eyes of a Black American heroine.
“People do mysterious things when they think they have found paradise,” reflects Shay, the heroine of Red Island House. When Shay, an intrepid Black American professor, marries Senna, a brash Italian businessman, she doesn’t imagine that her life’s greatest adventure will carry her far beyond their home in Milan: to an idyllic stretch of beach in Madagascar where Senna builds a flamboyant vacation villa. Before she knows it, she becomes the reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upbringing and her connection to the continent of her ancestors. So begins Shay’s journey into the heart of a remote African country. Can she keep her identity and her marriage intact amid the wild beauty and the lingering colonial sins of this mysterious world that both captivates and destroys foreigners?
A mesmerizing, powerful tale of travel and self-discovery that evokes Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Red Island House showcases an extraordinary literary voice and gorgeously depicts a lush and unknown world.
Lee's seductive novel (her first in 15 years, after Lost Hearts in Italy) chronicles the life of Shay Gilliam, a Black American woman married to an Italian man. Her husband, Senna, builds the couple a vacation property and pension in northwestern Madagascar. It takes a while for Shay to adjust during visits from Italy, where Shay teaches literature, but she befriends head housekeeper Bertine, whom Shay enlists to help her get rid of loud, racist Kristos, the house manager. As the decades pass, the couple raises children and continues to visit. Meanwhile, various episodes in Madagascar occupy Shay, including a feud between a volatile bar owner and an ostentatious business rival who appears to be "living out some Happy Valley colonial fantasy." (One of the two ends up dead.) Shay also has an unsettling encounter while searching for a "sacred tree," and develops a "strange intimacy" with the skipper of the couple's decrepit catamaran. These experiences lead Shay to confront ideas about race, class, and colonialism. If the plotting is episodic, the writing is vivid: "the first caress of tropical air" is "like an infant's hand on the face," and Shay's fond reflections on Bertine are especially moving. Things ebb and flow, but the overall impact is quietly powerful.