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Red Island House: by Andrea Lee

For her latest book, Red Island House, Andrea Lee is pulling a Faulkner impersonation, mimicking the literary titan’s Go Down, Moses by offering up a “novel” that is actually a collection of related short stories. Lee’s Faulkner imitation goes deeper than form, however, as Red Island House, much like Go Down, Moses (and the whole Faulkner canon, for that matter) is set in a fictional world that could be the real one. Rather than the Nobel laureate’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, Lee has set her book on the island of Naratrany, a tiny made-up island just north of the big island of Madagascar. Continuing her Faulkner impersonation, Lee utilizes fictive setting as a way to craft stories that reveal the broader social currents and historical legacies that dominate how humans interact with one another in the world today, particularly homing in on issues related to race, class, gender and colonialism. It is as an illuminating chronicle that Red Island House, taken as a whole, really shines, though several of the individual short stories also work as entertaining and standalone pieces in their own right.

At the center of each story in Red Island House, and therefore at the center of the book itself, are two entities: the first is the titular edifice, a palatial mansion built on a whim by a too-wealthy and too-bored Italian tycoon as his own personal getaway in the Tropics; the other is that tycoon’s wife, an African-American literature professor named Shay living the ex-pat life in Milan. In each of the stories, Shay is the protagonist and the plot hinges on the Red Island House in Naratrany, Madagascar. Throughout the course of the book, which proceeds chronologically, tracking Shay’s marriage to Senna (the aforementioned Italian tycoon) from its literal honeymoon phase into both characters’ twilight years, the reader comes to learn about the nature of Shay’s relationships, particularly but not only to her husband. Lee uses the book as a way to episodically trace Shay’s adult life juggling responsibilities on three continents: to family in the US, to her career in Europe and to her mansion, where she spends summers and every Christmas, in the African isles of the Indian Ocean. The quality of the stories is uneven; some are absolute bangers, such as opener “The Packet War,” while others are duds that serve as straight social commentary and/or pure filler, such as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

One of the obvious purposes of the book—and this is even more fully elucidated in Red Island House’s brief “Note from the Author” at the back of the book—is to bring readers to a deeper appreciation and understanding of Madagascar. The book wants the reader to interrogate both Shay and Senna as rich foreigners in the colonial Global South, to think about how Shay—as a black woman—is a fundamentally different type of rich foreigner than Senna (just another rich white dude) and to come to terms with the very real epistemological pitfalls of exoticization, essentialization and Orientalization. In other words, Red Island House very cleverly interrogates how we come to know other places, other people(s) and other cultures, as well as what we mean when we say or act or pretend that we know about such things.

In many ways, Madagascar is a tremendous case study for just such a project: the island has always been something of a global maritime crossroads (because of the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean), Madagascar features 19 ethnic groups and was a place that was supremely hard done by European (in this case, French) colonialism. Additionally, because of its unique evolutionary history, Madagascar is one of one, ecologically speaking, which helps—along with its tropical climate, gorgeous beaches and primeval rainforests—bring in all kinds of well-meaning white visitors (and, of course, probably even more not-well-meaning white tourists) who want to study, know or even inhabit the place. One of the central messages of Red Island House is that these sorts of “good intentions” white interlopers are embarking on an inherently fraught enterprise. They are different from the cavalcade of sex tourists coming to have summer flings with Sakalava teenagers, but their visits are still potentially harmful. Can Madagascar ever be truly theirs? The book makes this question broader: who belongs where and why and can we ever belong somewhere new? How? As a study in bi-/tri-continental living (something this Kentuckian-living-in-Ireland reviewer knows a thing or two about), Red Island House is well worth the read, as it elaborates on several of the finer personal identity issues that plague adults who decide to move across an ocean (or two, in the case of Shay). As a purely entertaining work of fiction, on the other hand, its disparate stories are hit or miss.

It is as an illuminating chronicle that Red Island House, taken as a whole, really shines, though several of the individual short stories also work as entertaining and standalone pieces in their own right.
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Belonging versus Possessing

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