Opening with the shooting of the mysterious Dragon Lady in 1950s Rhodesia, as seen through the bewildered eyes of a young girl, the reader’s curiosity is immediately piqued - and Louisa Treger does not disappoint.
The story unravels the life of Lady Virginia (Genie) Courtauld; her personal dramas and progression from an insecure social climber to a woman of fortitude and power, whose compassion and quest for equality both captivate and appal in equal measure. Indeed, she evokes the same reaction as her namesake, the snake tattoo coiled about her leg: ‘A savage thing … its head rearing up, jaws open, ready to strike. People whispered that it went from her ankle right the way up her thigh.’
The story spans several decades and locations, focusing upon periods of dramatic social and cultural change, from the Italian Riviera in the early 20th century, through two World Wars and eventually settling in a politically and racially heated Rhodesia. The journey is vivid, rich and exciting. The author paints each scene with great detail, including descriptions both horrific and exotic in Genie’s Rhodesia, working to build atmosphere, all of which results in parts of the book being utterly transportive and immersive. The exquisite decadence of Genie and her second husband Stephen’s home, La Rochelle, is captured beautifully, with its elaborate furnishings and tropical garden, itself steeped in beauty and melancholia.
The way Treger builds her characters is equally detailed and complex with constant reveals and shifts in perspective. Unfolding each individual and relationship like a bouquet of delicate flowers, the unfurling of petals teases and entices the reader, with each character becoming more raw and more real as the story unwinds. One of the highlights of the book is Treger’s portrayal of Genie’s delightful lemur Jongy, who is beautifully brought to life, and the depth of feeling that exists between monkey and master becomes crucial to both characterisation and plot.
It is particularly fascinating how Treger portrays the famed individuals in her story: Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson feature during Genie and Stephen’s time at Eltham Palace in London. Herself a controversial figure whose role as the foreign divorcee bore parallels with Genie, this book touches on a lesser explored avenue amongst the publicity received by Mrs Simpson. We also meet a young Robert Mugabe, a strong but silent minor character with a powerful presence, albeit aided by what we know of his impact on the future of Zimbabwe.
It comes as no surprise to find that this novel has its roots firmly set in fact. The reality versus the fictional element of this story takes us on a jolting ride, as we soak in the glamour and fantastical description, then find ourselves brought back to reality with an uncomfortable bump – particularly when the lens is focused upon the conflicts arising between the white farming community and Africa’s repressed natives.
Treger delicately entwines these truths with the vines of her imagination, explorative and stretching out to bring to life the very real tale of this extraordinary couple, and their life in Africa. Highly evocative and ultimately haunting, The Dragon Lady is a story of fascinating people and places in the most testing of times and situations. The shift of change underfoot and the knowledge the reader has in their pocket of what is to come lend a sinister edge to this heart-rending and captivating story.
About the reviewer
Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the Café Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: ‘The Chicken that Saved my Children.’ She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken.