Andrea Lee’s lush and lyrical Red Island House is an episodic novel of race and culture that flirts with fabulism as it portrays a couple at odds with each other and their island home. It’s set in Madagascar, an island nation that floats between Africa and India both culturally and geographically. “Though defined by cartographers as part of Africa, Madagascar really belongs only to itself,” Lee writes.
The novel is a bit like that as well. The protagonist, Shay, is a refined academic and an expatriate American. Senna is a big and brash Italian man. They meet at a wedding in Como, Italy, and fall inexorably in love. He’s older and wealthy, and it’s a second marriage for them both.
When Senna builds his dream vacation home in the rough northwestern reaches of Madagascar, on the tiny island of Naratrany, he tells Shay that it’s for her, like an elaborate wedding gift. But she knows better. The house is a fantasy of Senna’s that long precedes her arrival, and it proceeds regardless of her wishes or comfort. Their visits to Naratrany expose and exacerbate the space between them, and each time they touch down there, Senna becomes a terrain that Shay doesn’t recognize and can’t navigate. With time, tiny cracks become cleavages.
In Madagascar, Shay is thrust into a role she doesn’t want, as mistress of the Red House, a vast neocolonial manse that requires nearly a dozen staff members to maintain. The fact that Shay is Black complicates things in ways she can’t quite come to terms with. The Red House is not a plantation, the people who work there aren’t enslaved, and yet there is something deeply discomfiting in its hierarchical social arrangements. What can Shay make of the man and the marriage that put her in this position? “Through years of her Naratrany holidays, she never shakes the sensation that her leisure is built on old crimes,” she thinks. The tableau haunts and unsettles her.
At first Shay believes she can wall off these problems at the Red House, but the rot cannot be contained. The ebb and flow of Shay’s marriage is just part of the story, as Red Island House contains vignettes about a fascinating array of characters and entanglements in the Naratrany society that surrounds though never quite embraces the couple. From the feuding female entrepreneurs whom Shay calls “Sirens” to the local éminence grise who may or may not have spiritual powers, it’s a complex and seductive tapestry.
Shay’s volatile, uneasy relationship with the island, a place she and Senna can occupy but never possess, parallels the one she has with her husband. She knows her relationship with her second home “is incomplete, deliberately detached, based in guilt and fear—unworthy of the people and place.” What’s more interesting is that she also admits that her attitude is “in no way superior to that of Senna, who, for his part, has always viewed the country as his personal playground; as if it were indeed Libertalia, the fictional pirate colony that has captivated Western imagination since it was first born from Daniel Defoe’s pen.” This description captures both Shay’s ambivalence and Lee’s style, which is rife with cultural allusions of all sorts.
Lee’s striking writing is layered and thick with evocative descriptions of people, landscapes, feelings and foreboding. Sociological and psychological, it’s prose with the abstract feel of poetry. The stories of Red Island House are vibrant and enchanting despite the current of dread that runs through the novel from the start.