Likely Stories: The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger

Jan 9, 2020

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Louisa Treger has an amazing dual history.  She started as a classical violinist, and then to a Ph.D in English.  She lives in London, and this is her second novel. 


The story is told through the eyes of Catherine and Stephen Courtaulds as well as Ginie—The Dragon Lady.  The story begins with Catherine.  “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot.  I was thirteen years old and living on a forest reserve near the Mozambique border.  My father, a naturalist and forestry consultant, visited her regularly, but it was the first time he had taken me. // Her house was long and low and painted white, with a turret on one side.  It was like a castle in a storybook, unexpected and incongruous in a remote Rhodesian valley.  The interior was all hushed, cool spaces and we had to wait a long time for the Dragon Lady to see us” (3). 

Genie’s thread in the story begins when she “woke to a room bathed in sunlight, with the feeling that La Rochelle, their brand-new Rhodesian house, already fit her like a second skin. // She could hear the houseboy chopping wood on the woodpile; the slow sound of his ax a hypnotic accompaniment to the twittering birds that filled the garden every morning.  She checked the mosquito net for spiders, scorpions and snakes, then got out of bead and went to the window.  Her roses blazed on the lawn.  In the distance, a line of hills rose up into an impossibly blue school dissolving around their summits” (7).  These two beginnings may sound idyllic, but the story takes some incredible turns.

One day, “They all sat on the veranda.  Ginie lifted [her pet monkey] Jongy onto her lap and he nuzzled into her. […] Dixon [a servant] brought out a tray with a jug of chilled lemonade and two tall glasses.  The midday shadows were sharp and black, with splashing gold between the trees.  They sipped their drinks and listened to the irregular chik-chik-chik-chik of the insects.  Genie took the letters out of her bag and tore the local one open with her thumb.  Drawing out the single white sheet of paper, she began to read.  The color drained from her face.  Max put his muzzle on her knee and looked up at her with liquid, anxious eyes.  Stephen’s skin prickled. // ‘What’s wrong?’ // She handed over the letter in silence. ‘LEAVE THE KAFFIRS ALONE, IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU.  IF YOU THINK THAT A PACK OF SAVAGES WOULDN’T SLIT YOUR THROAT ALONG WITH EVERONE ELSE’S, THEN YOU’RE FOOLS’ (41-42).  They saw this threat as empty as a toothless lion.

The story turns ominous.  Louisa wrote, “It didn’t help that Stephen hated staying out late at night.  His idea of a perfect evening was dinner at home as a couple, listening to records or reading.  He was a voracious reader; sometimes poetry, sometimes fiction, sometimes the Greek and Latin classics.  For the most part, he read history: Gibbon, Macaulay, Froude, Prescott, Johnson, Boswell, Pepys, and Carlyle.  His grasp of the subject made Ginie conscious of the gaps in her own education.  He enjoyed the theatre, the opera and the ballet” (61).  When rumors spread, Ginie and Stephen became shunned, because Ginie had been divorced.

Louisa Treger’s latest novel, The Dragon Lady, is a frightening story of miscegenation and racism.  This story will keep you turning pages well into a dark night.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!