Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Local Customs by Audrey Thomas, a writer's journey into 19th-century Africa

In Local Customs, Canadian novelist Audrey Thomas examines the out-of-the-ordinary life and even more curious death of an early 19th-century woman writer, Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838), who wrote poetry and novels under the initials "L.E.L."

The story uses a multi-voiced structure that's both quirky and effective.  The main narrator is Letitia (Letty), who reveals up front that she's speaking from beyond the grave.  This can be unnerving at first, but this technique gives readers a fuller picture of events than they would have otherwise.

In June of 1838, Letty marries Scottish-born George Maclean, the British governor of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and moves with him to Africa.  However, within two months of her arrival, she is found dead, a bottle of prussic acid clutched in her hand.  Although most white settlers in the region don't last long tropical fevers have killed off so many missionaries and their wives that their graveyards flourish more than their religion Letty had thrived in the climate. What really happened to her?

In a witty and rather lofty tone, Letty details the events that led up to her demise: her genteel family background, her unlikely courtship and marriage to George, the mismatched couple's growing affection for one another, the truth about her scandalous past, her lonely life at Cape Coast Castle, her growing friendship with a visiting Scotsman, and her growing fear that she's being watched and threatened in her own home.

A dedicated professional writer, Letty is pointedly observant, self-confident... and also rather high-maintenance.  Although she's an entertaining conversationalist at social gatherings, she gives the impression of being difficult to live with. Amid a sea of frilly debutantes obsessed with their London Seasons, Letty is a Victorian original.

"It is curious how much of its romantic character a country owes to strangers, perhaps because they know least about it," she wisely states in the beginning.  She loves the idea of an African adventure, and Thomas elaborates on many of the local customs that fascinate and sometimes disgust Letty like Englishmen's habits of taking native mistresses, or "country wives." 

Interspersed with Letty's words, a handful of other characters chime in with their perspectives on her life and sudden death, almost as if this were a play.  Local Customs is the type of intelligent literary mystery that doesn't present a definitive answer but gives readers sufficient information to draw their own conclusions.  Best of all is the spotlight it shines on Letitia Landon, a talented writer who has been undeservedly forgotten.

Local Customs was published in February 2014 by Canada's Dundurn Press ($16.99 pb in US & Canada / $4.99 ebook).  Thanks to the publisher for granting me access via NetGalley.

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great book.

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    1. It was enjoyable, and different!

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  2. Clyde Chantler wrote a novel about the mystery of Landon's fate, called "Eight Weeks," and Joseph Shearing used it as the basis for "The Golden Violet" (with the action transferred to Jamaica and the heroine turning the tables on her spouse).

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    1. Thanks for that information - I hadn't come across any previous works about her before.

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