I’m aware that blog tours have been a subject for discussion this month: giving them up; wondering whether they are a true reflection of a book; or might they be disappearing altogether? I enjoy them because I get to read outside my comfort zone, and then bring a great book like this, that might not have been noticed otherwise, to my follower’s attention. This was definitely the case with Charity, because I might not have encountered it in my normal reading life, but now I can tell you just how good it is and hope that some of you love it as much as I did.
Our narrator is Lauren, a teenage girl who is being interviewed as a potential lodger and carer for an elderly lady named Edith. The two get along, bonding over their experiences of Kenya where Lauren’s grandmother was born and where Edith’s husband Forbes was stationed in the 1950s, during what became known as the Mau Mau uprising. This was a war between the colonisers and the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (the KLFA also known as the Mau Mau). This was a bitter fight for independence from the British by the KLFA, made up of Kikuyu, Meru and Embu people, as well as a small proportion of Masai and Kamba tribesmen. There were war crimes on both sides, but at the end of the war there were over 11,000 dead on the Mau Mau side, including over 1000 executions – the largest use of wartime capital punishment in the British Empire’s history. That’s not to mention the atrocities carried out on women, in a conflict where rape was deliberately used as a means to diminish tribal bloodlines with British blood.
Lauren works on a high street make-up counter and had been running out of places to live, since her Mum is getting remarried to someone she doesn’t get on with. She and Edith seems to rub along together nicely. So, Lauren moves into the spare room and starts caring for her. I love how the relationship between these two women works, as they have such diverse views. Edith is a staunch right winger whose views would really raise eyebrows these days. So, in the present day passages, there are a few clashes. There are statements from Edith that many would find offensive.
‘I’m sure I’m the last of their priorities. If you want to get to the top of the queue you have to be a Muslim who doesn’t speak any English, or a gay lesbian woman, then you’ll get seen straightaway.’
‘Oh, Edith, you crack me up, the things you come out with.’ Lauren shook her head and laughed. ‘I don’t think people’s religion or sexuality show up in X-rays.’
When they do talk about Kenya, and eventually Forbes, Lauren listens intently. At turns interested and horrified by the perspective he clearly brought home with him. Edith’s perspective affects Lauren so personally because of her grandmother. When Lauren suggests that Edith’s family were economic migrants, only in Kenya to make a better life for themselves, Edith strongly dismisses it, declaring Kenya had ‘nothing’ before white farmers arrived. Lauren is incensed.
‘There wasn’t ‘nothing’ there. There was people, living differently to how English people lived, but it was still their land – land the English colonists stole off them. I mean, imagine if I suddenly told you this was my house now, that you’re just a squatter and if you want to stay you’ve got to work for me, obey my orders.’ I thought I’d gone too far, but instead of making her angry, what I’d said seemed to excite Edith. She was looking at me weirdly, kind of like she was in awe of me. ‘Have you been talking to Mary?’
It seems that both women have secrets. Mary was Edith’s friend, but she now visits her at night, creeping into the bedroom and up the bed. Edith is sometimes so scared of her she can’t sleep. What could have happened between them? We do travel back in time to find out, following Edith’s childhood in Kenya as well as Forbes’s service in the army, and a young Kenyan woman named Charity. Charity is just a young girl, caught, accidentally out after curfew, and put into a prison camp where she meets a brutal British officer. There is bloodshed and sexual violence in these flashbacks. It’s harrowing at times, but necessary for us to see why this period of Kenyan history and the brutality of the colonisers, still resonates so strongly generations later.
Two other characters are brought into the present day section of the novel: Paul, who is Edith’s lodger in the basement flat and Jo her daughter. Jo is back from running a new age retreat in Europe and is probably the best example of white privilege I’ve seen in a long time. She has no concept of how her life is easier, because she is from financially stable parents, but also because she is white. She assumes that her mother will have her living there, that the house will be hers as soon as Edith has gone, and that she’s automatically prised by her mother above Lauren and Paul, even though she’s never been there for her mother. However, when Edith’s lawyer visits she’s soon disabused, of her assumptions. Paul seems to have watched over Edith for some time, supporting her with financial decisions and stepping in when she needs help. Once all the characters are in play, some very big secrets start to emerge and we begin to see how all of them are linked by one incident sixty years ago.
It’s very hard to believe that this is Madeline Dewhurst’s first novel. It’s a brilliant read and once you’re hooked, it will be so hard to put it down. I couldn’t wait and finished it in the wee small hours of the morning, following every twist and turn. The author has a great understanding of post-colonial cultures and how the atrocities inflicted by the British empire still resonate in those countries we colonised, but also here at home. I studied post-colonial literature over twenty years ago at university. It is stories like these that remind me why I feel sick when crowds at the Albert Hall sing Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms. This isn’t just a harmless song – it extols the virtues of empire, invokes God as being on the coloniser’s side and suggests that the boundaries of empire should spread further still. It calls Great Britain ‘the mother of the free’ but that freedom is only open to the coloniser not the colonised. This novel shows the impact of the British Empire on one family, with it’s malign influence still felt three generations later. I truly enjoyed this as a thriller, where you’re never quite sure who is the spider and who is the fly. I also loved the honest and brutal way the British Army’s rule in Kenya is depicted, tainting the lives of everyone involved across time. Finally, there is a glimmer of hope as to how this trauma can be addressed and resolved for the future.
Meet The Author.
Madeline Dewhurst is an academic in English and Creative Writing at the Open University. Her previous writing includes fiction, journalism and drama. Charity, which was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, is her first novel.