cover image Red Island House

Red Island House

Andrea Lee. Scribner, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-982137-80-9

Lee’s seductive novel (her first in 15 years, after Lost Hearts in Italy) chronicles the life of Shay Gilliam, a Black American woman married to an Italian man. Her husband, Senna, builds the couple a vacation property and pension in northwestern Madagascar. It takes a while for Shay to adjust during visits from Italy, where Shay teaches literature, but she befriends head housekeeper Bertine, whom Shay enlists to help her get rid of loud, racist Kristos, the house manager. As the decades pass, the couple raises children and continues to visit. Meanwhile, various episodes in Madagascar occupy Shay, including a feud between a volatile bar owner and an ostentatious business rival who appears to be “living out some Happy Valley colonial fantasy.” (One of the two ends up dead.) Shay also has an unsettling encounter while searching for a “sacred tree,” and develops a “strange intimacy” with the skipper of the couple’s decrepit catamaran. These experiences lead Shay to confront ideas about race, class, and colonialism. If the plotting is episodic, the writing is vivid: “the first caress of tropical air” is “like an infant’s hand on the face,” and Shay’s fond reflections on Bertine are especially moving. Things ebb and flow, but the overall impact is quietly powerful. (Mar.)