In Red Island House, Andrea Lee introduces us to Shay and Senna, as well as the island nation of Madagascar. Shay is a California-born African American, working as a university professor in Milan. Her husband Senna is a successful Italian businessman. As Europeans do, they vacation on a small island off the coast of Madagascar. While there, they fall in love with a large red house and decide to invest.
Shay is our narrator, and she’s full of stories about island people as well as other ex-pats. The Red Island House isn’t a full-time residence for the family. Instead, they vacation there for a few months every year and rent it out during other times. Still, the book covers a twenty-year period, so Shay tells a variety of stories.
Despite the passage of time, Shay remains uncomfortable in her role as “woman of the house.” She values her position in both the US and Italy, but on Madagascar, the situation creates conflict for her. On the island, she is visually similar to the native islanders. But her position as landowner and wealthy ex-pat makes her of another caste entirely. And Shay struggles to reconcile the two perceptions.
She also often feels guilty for her position in life and brings money and gifts to the various islanders who help her with the Red House. I wondered who was really at the “top rung” of the caste ladder, given the control that comes with expecting or demanding gifts.
Red Island House gave me plenty to think about. In addition to its obvious discussions of class and caste, the stories illustrate the realities of current-day colonialism. At the same time, Lee comes at the topics from a sideways angle. She never straight out says, “Here is the thread between stories.” We must interpret each story and the novel based on our own perspective.
This was an audiobook I could dip in and out of, since each chapter was its own encapsulated story. And that worked for me. I also appreciated having a narrator manage the patois of language, combining Italian, French, English, and native dialect. On the other hand, it made following that tenuous narrative thread more difficult.
I appreciated the characterization of Shay as a woman who belongs nowhere but has connections “everywhere”—on three continents. Lee portrays her as a compassionate and self-aware thinker, who sees the ironies in her life.
My book club found plenty to discuss in Red Island House, especially since one of us has some ex-pat experience. If immersing yourself in another culture appeals to you, I recommend giving it a try.
Pair with Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson for a look at similar questions from a historical perspective. Or try Lisa Anselmo’s My (Part-Time) Paris Life, a memoir about ex-pat life.