Leopold Blue by Rosie Rowell
Review by M
Leopold is a small (fictional) town set in the Cederberg valley in South Africa, near Cape Town. There, the sky is blue and playing chicken in the main street on a Sunday is not as daring as it sounds. Fifteen year old Meg lives here with her sister and her parents. Life seems simple and monotonous although Meg’s mother, the return of Simon, and the arrival of Xanthe threaten to upset all sorts of applecarts.
Set in the early 1990s in the lead up to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Leopold Blue presents a charming and thoughtful slice of life from a rural, white, English-speaking, teenage girl’s point-of-view. The novel shows how every one of those little adjectives made a difference to Meg’s life.
A tumultuous time in South Africa’s history when it wasn't sure whether is was still in or out of apartheid, Leopold Blue captures the pregnant mood of a nation and of individual people very well: the hopes and the fears, the celebrations and the dangers, the deceits, and the getting on with life. The novel is a very level-headed representation with a tone that is as warm as the bright sun you’d find in a Leopold blue sky but with a hint of grit just below the surface dust.
Early on, and more than once in the novel, characters present perspectives that overlook glaring issues about foreign interventions which I expected the author to highlight for a UK audience. Further on, Rowell does this, and she does it well and believably. Of all the characters, Simon was a jarring one and whether that is Rowel’s intention or not is curious. The novel definitely focuses most on the character of Meg and the small interiority of her world and how it starts to open up. I enjoyed it for doing that.
Footnotes are provided for the South African words and local slang so there’s a flow of understanding that’s not interrupted by turning to a glossary at the back.
For UK teenagers, Leopold Blue is a refreshingly alternative coming-of-age read with glimpses into a culture that is at once familiar yet also very different. Anyone else curious about that period of history will probably enjoy it. It will probably appeal to fans of Friday Brown (Vikki Wakefield) or Raspberries on the Yangtze (Karen Wallace).
Leopold Blue is a story that is very close to my own childhood so I was either going to love it or hate it. I read it quickly and let my thoughts rest for a few days before I wrote this review. I loved Leopold Blue and I’ll be highly recommending it.
Publication details: January 2013, Hot Key Books, London, paperbackThis copy: uncorrected proof for review from the publisher