Of Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House, Giles Foden writes ‘This exotic novel handles large themes with assurance, tact and knowledge’. The Observer have deemed her debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, ‘almost overwhelmingly vivid’, and the Times Literary Supplement herald it ‘striking for its vigour, wit and thoughtfulness’. Its own blurb states that The Dhow House is a ‘seductive, fast-paced tale of lust, power and corruption’, as well as ‘forbidden love in a dark time’. Whilst I am not familiar with her first novel, upon reading The Dhow House, McNeil’s work seems to me on this basis to be inconsistent; whilst the settings she describes are undoubtedly vivid, the characters and prose felt rather flat to me.
Rebecca Laurelson is the protagonist of The Dhow House. She goes to live at her relatively unknown aunt’s house near Kilindoni in Tanzania, after being forced to leave her job post in an East African field hospital. For whites, the African coast holds many dangers, the ultimate threat that of Islamist terrorism. On the face of it, as it deals with such poignant themes as terror attacks, one would expect the novel to be both insightful and important. Such elements, however, felt overshadowed by the element of love story here. In what feels to me like a massive cliche, Rebecca soon falls in love with her young cousin, Storm. The very description which McNeil offers of him is banal: ‘His eyes were the depthless blue of swimming pools’. How could they possibly be anything else? The way in which Rebecca’s feelings for him are expressed follow a similarly cringeworthy pattern: ‘As she’d taken his hand she’d felt an odd buzzing in the pit of her stomach’.
Oddly, McNeil’s scenic depictions are far more striking, and hold some of the vividness which other reviewers have picked up on in her earlier work. Sentences such as ‘A flare of sun over a blood ocean’ and ‘The sun rises like a proximate planet, a burning ceramic moon’ hold such power, and even hover around the bounds of originality. McNeil’s use of cultural details, both historical and contemporary, help to ease the setting into life. She is evidently very familiar with African weather patterns and geography, and renders every backdrop into which her characters step realistic. The novel is a visual one, but other senses have almost been forgotten in the foregrounding of places.
The use of two narrative perspectives – the first and third person – worked well here. The plot, however, is rather drawn out in places. Details which are included are sometimes repetitive or superfluous, and I must admit that I became a little frustrated with the inclusion of such unnecessary details.
McNeil’s strength definitely lies within her descriptive power; it is just a shame that the rest of the book falls flat and imbalanced in comparison. The Dhow House feels accurate in terms of place, but the scenery feels more realistic than those who people it. The whole never really came to life for me. There was so much potential here, and had the plot been tighter, I probably would have enjoyed it far more. There are also quite a few issues with consistency which I noticed throughout, particularly with regard to grammar and tenses. The relatively poor editing does let the whole down considerably, as any degree of fluency is lost in those places which would have benefitted from it the most.