Red Island House by Andrea Lee

Red Island House is loosely short stories or anecdotes about people who live on an island in Madagascar, with the perspective of Shay, a black American woman, as the observer. The through line of the stories is that Shay’s wealthy Italian husband has built a gargantuan house there, and the stories take place on our around the house, and during the time of their marriage from early days til they eventually split up. The author has written for the New Yorker and originally started writing short stories about people on an island and the house, before connecting them all up and making it one flowing book.

I love books about houses. If it’s a haunted house in some way or effects the lives of it’s inhabitants, that’s all the better to me. To some extent, this is true in this book. The opening chapter talks about the house being cursed because Shay’s husband did not make the proper ritutal sacrifice and housewarming gestures. She, with the help of her house keeper, must quietly go behind his back and work some magic to fix it. I like this as an opening, and the way that it shows tradition and magic in the lives of people there. Sadly, the book after this felt a little disjointed, cobbled together and cold to me.

I think there was just something flat about the way the author wrote this book. I felt like I was reading a book of travel stories that had added social commentary put in. Shay, being an African American, feels uncomfortable with being thrust into the “lady of the manor” role when she looks more like the local islanders than the White wealthy types who own houses like hers. She’s very aware of her privilege, so there’s quite a few jarring moments for her. I thought this was an interesting aspect of this book when I picked it up, but as she is our entry point and protagonist, it actually put me at one remove from the island people, whose stories and lives were really interesting. She’s also quite a judgmental character herself. I didn’t warm to her and I felt like her relationship with her husband didn’t make a lot of sense. She always felt at one remove too. Probably because there are so many stories in this book, so the chapters have her in them but are not always about her.

The book was evocative of place. I’ve never been to Madagascar and know little about it. Reading this book has made me want to read authors who are from that place. I got a sense of heat, isolation, magic and culture, societal mores. But again, it felt like a travelogue filtered through the eyes of an outsider.

On the whole, it’s not a bad book and has some really interesting stories in it, some of which I really enjoyed. If you like the sound of it, I think you’ll enjoy it. I just found it hard to get into because of that structure and the authors tone. We’re always at one remove from everyone in it, which makes for a cold read. And while we get description, we don’t get all the feelings that give the reader warmth and investment.

Read It If: an imperfect read that leaves you out in the cold somewhat, there is good stuff here in the mix. Perhaps not a read that will appeal to everyone.

Thank you Simon & Schuster Canada for the ARC of this book for review. All opinions are my own honest thoughts. The Red Island House is out March 23rd.

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