Historical novels often lend themselves to dreary descriptions of things from the past interrupted by brief character action; Elizabeth McDougall’s novel, The Cracks in the Pavement, is something else entirely. Although it encompasses a time period covering both World War II and the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, this beautifully written novel is a study in characters so lifelike, readers will come to feel attached to the Kingston family of the novel as to their own friends, leaving the book wondering what happened to them.
Although the novel centers on Mardy, the headstrong youngest daughter of a colonial family as she grows up in pre-independence Kenya, each member of the Kingston family draws the reader in with his or her own story. Set amidst the turbulence of World War II, the family’s adventures cannot help but be affected by the political milieu in which they occur. And yet it is the family dramas that draw us into this fascinating novel. Never once are we conscious of the “historical importance” of the story; instead, it provides a backdrop for the family conflicts, settler crises, and way of life integral to the story. Where other novelists insert dogs and cats, McDougall instead has bush babies, lions, and dikdiks.
Mardy’s relationship with her mother forms a central theme of the novel. Like many young girls, not just those growing up in Kenya, she finds herself in constant conflict with Edwina, her mother. Edwina has her own demons to confront, and in the end, a dramatic turn of events will impact the lives of both mother and daughter. Along the way, we see Mardy as she grows up, from impertinent toddler peaking through the neighboring hedge to convent school (where the nuns have their own challenges with Mardy) on to life as a young woman falling in love. Every step in Mardy’s journey is an unfolding of her character and an expansion of family life for the reader.
This is not only a story of colonial settlers, however. McDougall gives full development to the Kikuyus with whom the family interacts. Nursemaid and companion Brigid is as vividly drawn as other Kingston family members. Indeed one of the author’s greatest writing gifts is the full development and personality given to even minor characters in her novel, whether they be schoolyard friends or gardeners. McDougall also handles with Mau Mau rebellion with a deft hand, helping readers understand how it arose and its impact on Kenyan society generally.
The Cracks in the Pavement is a wonderful book about family conflict and the enduring love that exists within a family. It is about weathering hard times together, and growing as individuals. It’s about mothers and daughters, personality clashes and longstanding friendship. In short, Elizabeth McDougall has crafted a wonderful story of a young girl growing up and into herself. That it all happens to be set in colonial Kenya is just icing on the cake. It’s easy to believe, with McDougall’s writing skills, that this story could have been set in any time period in any country and still be as beloved by readers. For readers of The Cracks in the Pavement, there’s nothing dreary in this historical novel’s setting. Instead, life seems to jump off every page.
The Cracks in the Pavement
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This content was based upon a free review copy the Contributor received.