ARC Review: ‘Local Customs’ by Audrey Thomas

22 February 2014

Dundern

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In 1838 the writer Letitia Landon married the governor of Cape Coast Castle, Captain George MacLean while the captain was on leave. It was a whirl-wind romance. They sailed for Cape Coast a few days later, arriving safely after five weeks. Eight weeks later Letty was dead. Initially her death was recorded as accidental – an overdose of prussic acid, but events surrounding her death caused a storm in London’s literary crowd, her husband was accused of neglect or cruelty, and there were rumours of suicide. The mystery remains – how did she die? Award winning writer Audrey Thomas first heard Leticia Landon’s story in 1964 while visiting Ghana. She visited Cape Coast Castle during the two years her husband taught at the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. Their guide told her about the famous English lady who wrote books and who’s death was surrounded by mystery. This is her answer to that mystery.

 

Written in the first person and alternating between the four principle characters of Letty, George, the local missionary Thomas Birch Freeman, and a colleague of Captain MacLean’s, Brodie Cruikshank who became Letty’s closest friend in Africa, as well as Mrs Bailey, Letty’s companion and the person who found her body, this novel is a well-researched fictionalised account of events in 1838. Based on surviving accounts of the time including the papers of Thomas Freeman, this is a highly readable novel that accurately depicts the time and place in which it is set. Audrey Thomas’s writing brings each of the characters to life; each has their own particular voice. The little details of life in mid-nineteenth century England and West Africa, the local customs, the speech patterns and different dialects of each character and their motivations are convincing and very real. I was immersed in the story, fascinated by the details of life in Africa at the time, the differing attitudes of the locals and colonial hierarchy. It was more complex than one expects at first sight.

 Thomas’s solution to the mystery – that Leticia was murdered – gives this story its tension. By whom? The author makes a suggestion – which I’m not going to tell you – that is as plausible as accidental death by prussic acid or an unknown illness. So the mystery remains.

In 1838 the writer Letitia Landon married the governor of Cape Coast Castle, Captain George MacLean while the captain was on leave. It was a whirl-wind romance. They sailed for Cape Coast a few days later, arriving safely after five weeks. Eight weeks later Letty was dead. Initially her death was recorded as accidental – an overdose of prussic acid, but events surrounding her death caused a storm in London’s literary crowd, her husband was accused of neglect or cruelty, and there were rumours of suicide. The mystery remains – how did she die? Award winning writer Audrey Thomas first heard Leticia Landon’s story in 1964 while visiting Ghana. She visited Cape Coast Castle during the two years her husband taught at the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. Their guide told her about the famous English lady who wrote books and who’s death was surrounded by mystery. This is her answer to that mystery.

Written in the first person and alternating between the four principle characters of Letty, George, the local missionary Thomas Birch Freeman, and a colleague of Captain MacLean’s, Brodie Cruikshank who became Letty’s closest friend in Africa, as well as Mrs Bailey, Letty’s companion and the person who found her body, this novel is a well-researched fictionalised account of events in 1838. Based on surviving accounts of the time including the papers of Thomas Freeman, this is a highly readable novel that accurately depicts the time and place in which it is set. Audrey Thomas’s writing brings each of the characters to life; each has their own particular voice. The little details of life in mid-nineteenth century England and West Africa, the local customs, the speech patterns and different dialects of each character and their motivations are convincing and very real. I was immersed in the story, fascinated by the details of life in Africa at the time, the differing attitudes of the locals and colonial hierarchy. It was more complex than one expects at first sight.

 Thomas’s solution to the mystery – that Leticia was murdered – gives this story its tension. By whom? The author makes a suggestion – which I’m not going to tell you – that is as plausible as accidental death by prussic acid or an unknown illness. So the mystery remains.

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