‘Red Island House’ probes uncomfortable collisions of class, race

Colonialism fuels the conflict within a Black American woman, whose wealthy Italian husband sets up a resort on an impoverished African island.

Simon & Schuster
“Red Island House” by Andrea Lee, Scribner, 288 pp.

Andrea Lee is best known for her semi-autobiographical first novel, “Sarah Phillips,” about a Harvard-educated daughter of the Black bourgeoisie who runs off to Europe to break free of the hermetic, old-fashioned world of her childhood. Published in 1984, it has become something of a modern classic.

In the decades since, Lee has settled in Italy, writing fiction that explores racial and national identity. “Red Island House” – her first novel since “Lost Hearts in Italy” was published 15 years ago – offers a fresh take on colonialism, privilege, race, and heritage from the perspective of a Black American scholar married to a rich Italian businessman who, before they met, built an ostentatious vacation home on an impoverished African island.

The ylang-ylang-scented setting is Madagascar, which gained its independence from France in 1960, yet still attracts foreigners lured by tropical beaches, sex tourism, gemstone mining, and prospects for lucrative development. “Outsiders always want something from Madagascar,” Lee writes in this portrait of neocolonialism.

“Red Island House” is in part the story of the 20-plus-year marriage of wealthy, hard-driving Gianmaria Senna and his second wife, Shay Gilliam, a bookish African American scholar who teaches a perennially popular course in Black American literature at Milan’s Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.

From the start, they are an odd couple, 15 years and a dozen worlds apart. When Shay, fresh out of graduate school, meets Senna, he’s divorced and prosperous, and she’s “bowled over by a man so different from the cerebral American and European lovers she’s had since she left her first brief marriage to her college boyfriend.” For his part, Senna “loves to explain things to his overeducated wife, robust truths about the way the world functions outside of books.”

Lee draws a vivid picture of this willful, self-made man, who lifted his family from postwar poverty with a business brokering repair services for agricultural machines across Europe. “He isn’t a bad man,” she writes, “but after long years spent peddling irrigation valves, his soul is thrown off-balance by the possibilities of a country where he is not just a successful businessman, but a nabob.”

The couple live in Milan with their two children but spend several months a year on the fictional island of Naratrany in northwestern Madagascar, where Senna, “dizzied by the infinite possibilities offered by using First World money in a Third World country,” has indulged his tropical dreams by creating an extravagant resort on Finoana Beach.

Shay, who was raised in Oakland, California, “with staunch East Bay political correctness amid the progressive Black middle class,” is uncomfortable being “the chatelaine of a neocolonial pleasure palace,” this “emblem of wealth in a land of poverty.” And as an African American among the local Malagasy, she finds it difficult to navigate the hierarchy of race.

Lee sets up these sources of friction in the book’s opening pages, which also pack in a lot of deeply researched information about Madagascar. Against this backdrop, “Red Island House” charts Shay’s journey of discovery – getting to know both her home away from home (away from home) and herself.

Like Lee’s earlier fiction, this novel is actually a series of linked stories – told in a tight third person that hews closely to Shay’s point of view. Many of these richly evocative tales – two of which have been published in The New Yorker – are individual gems; when strung together, they add up to a sort of variegated add-a-pearl necklace.

But while the cumulative effect is mesmerizing, the episodic form, which Lee has long championed, has its drawbacks. Rather than build steadily towards a denouement, the disjointed narrative periodically loses steam. Continuity issues like repetitions should have been caught in editing. And one of the best characters, Bertine la Grande – Shay’s majestic head housekeeper and mentor in the magical, mythical ways of the island – figures strongly in the first chapter, but frustratingly disappears until an exceedingly late posthumous tribute.

Several stories involve the dangers of meddling in local rivalries and affairs. Shay comes to realize that “her brown skin and her American expansiveness lend her a false sense of familiarity with the people of color around her.” She envies the Malagasys’ deep connections to their homeland, and comes to see herself as “the rootless outsider, whose life of privilege carried with it blindness, pride, and scattershot ignorance.”

Another recurrent theme is the “reckless self-indulgence” of “geriatric playboys” like Senna and his friends – old white Europeans who carry on with young local girls. Shay is occasionally amused by these pathetic late-life dalliances, one of which reads like the plot of an Italian operetta. But she is more often disgusted by the louche exploitation, and doesn’t blame the girls for cashing in on the old fools because she recognizes the driving economic necessity. 

When one of these girls accompanies a Red House paying guest to dinner on the veranda, Shay is at first bothered. But she is humbled by the thought that the girl, “packaged as cheap merchandise, was the true heiress of the land on which they all sat feasting.”

It’s one of many provocative observations in this book, which explores what really matters in a paradise that’s not exactly lost, but twisted.

In addition to the Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Wall Street Journal and NPR, among other publications.

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