Courtesy of Elizabeth Yoon

The popular image of Madagascar is a rugged, tropical paradise, a mystical land where playful lemurs bound through the underbrush and the alien eyes of chameleons peer from the jungle depths. Yet Madagascar, despite the undeniable cuteness of its furry inhabitants, is far more than a National Geographic feature.

In her latest book “Red Island House,” novelist Andrea Lee explores entanglements of class, race and ethnicity in Madagascar, the Red Island. The story is centered on Shay, a Black American professor, as she attempts to navigate her newfound role on Madagascar’s Naratrany Island as the wife of a wealthy Italian hotel owner. Caught between her privileged position and her ancestral connection to the continent, Shay provides thoughtful musings on imperialism and Malagasy culture. Spanning two turbulent decades, “Red Island House” raises questions about love and identity that will resonate long after turning the final page.   

Shay’s multifaceted character is Lee’s semi-autobiographical creation. Shay was shaped by her upbringing as a daughter of academics among the progressive Black middle class of Oakland, Calif. A natural polyglot, Shay (like the author) is Ivy-League educated and travels abroad to continue her studies. As a divorced expatriate, she resides in Rome studying Black colonial literature until she meets Senna, an Italian businessman who “hustled himself out of poverty, the way so many Black Americans had to do.” The reserved, intellectual Shay seems incongruous with Senna, “a short pushy Lombard businessman whose sole diploma is a high school ragioneria certificate.”

Despite the education disparity, Senna — older, wealthy and charismatic — captures her heart. During their courtship, in a fit of indulgent tropical fantasy, Senna purchases land on the remote island of Naratrany and builds the thatched Red House Hotel as a wedding present to his bride. The newlyweds embark for Madagascar after the completion of the hotel, and Senna fulfills his audacious fantasies in one fell swoop, gaining an “exotic” new wife and an exotic new land. Shay, to her reluctance, becomes the mistress of the Red House.   

The sprawling Red House, with its wicker furniture and linen-clad foreigners, is reminiscent of the old French resorts from colonial eras gone by. Senna, resplendent in his tropical fantasy, is blissfully unaware of the historical connotations. Yet Shay, weaned on a steady diet of Stowe, Douglas and DuBois, cannot help but feel troubled. As the mistress of the Red House, Shay commands the small army of gardeners, cooks and maids who allow the hotel to function. Madagascar is one of the poorest nations in the world, so jobs in its tourism sector are prized. However, though working at the Red House pays well above the average wage, Shay feels she owes more to the oft-exploited native residents. Deeply uncomfortable with her power over the staff, Shay struggles as she attempts to separate the shared color of their skin from her privileged position.    

Where “Red Island House” falters is in its organization. Only loosely chronological, the novel is less a coherent narrative and more a series of vignettes. Some chapters are reflections on imperialism and the cycle of prostitution that surrounds the wealthy expats on Naratrany. Others are mystical adventures, with elements of deep superstition and tribal lore. Many of the chapters could be short stories in their own right, with minor adaptations. Though this format kept me turning pages, I found it jarring at times. I’d often form a bond with a character, only for Lee to find a convenient ending for them by the end of the chapter. These endings, often a sudden exodus from Madagascar or a clearly foreshadowed (yet no less tragic) death, left me feeling cut off from the broader story.  

Although the plot is original, Lee falls into excessive character descriptions. Lee’s characters at times seem too finely crafted, too curated, too evenly exotic and eccentric. Of a white Zimbabwean sailor, Lee writes: “Tall with muscle in the right places, surfer hair streaming past his shoulders, a long sun-darkened face with eyes that were a faded color like smoke, but that seemed to catch onto things quicker than other people’s eyes.” This same character, who also spoke six languages and was an agricultural expert, truly stretched the bounds of my credulity. To say nothing of the descriptions of minor character Tomy, a living statue who “has skin the color of polished iron; a heroic body of chiseled muscle and sinew” or the alcoholic, scheming Greek manager Kristos, such hyperbolic descriptions detract from the tale.  

Yet Lee’s novel remains impressive. A truly immersive read, Lee’s writing, lush as the foliage of Naratrany, fills “Red Island House” with an ambiance of mystique and wonder. However, her portrayal of the locals is perhaps her best writing. Lee imbues the people of Madagascar, who “move through the world with the impeccable poise of people who live where their ancestors did,” with a sense of folklore and dignity. As Shay travels to revered shrines and pristine beaches, she encounters lamba-clad women, fragrant samosas, healers and wandering zebu, the sacred cattle of Madagascar.

Acquainting Shay with characters from the Merina, Sakalava and Betsimisaraka peoples, Lee exposes the reader to the ethnic landscape that defines Naratrany. Moreover, her descriptions of cosmopolitan Milan and untouched archipelagoes create a sense of the romantic. The rowdy nightclubs of Finoana Bay blast local salegy music, while the people of Madagascar and vacationing Europeans alike down shots of potent toaka gasy rum.

Neither spare nor florid, Lee’s lyrical prose drew me into vibrant Naratrany. “Red Island House” is a reflection of the post-colonial enigma that is modern Madagascar. As a perennial outsider because of her nationality, wealth and education, Shay is marked as a vazaha (foreigner in Malagasy), even after a decade of life on the island. Equal parts a struggle of identity and a story of adventure, tragedy and superstition, “Red Island House” transcends its occasional clichés with imaginative mystique.

It is one of the few books I’ve read recently that I know I’ll return to within the year, and it deserves its spot as a book of the moment.

Daily Arts Writer Sam Mathisson can be reached at