First novels are frequently autobiographical, and "Mary Lacey" is no exception. Mary Lacey, its heroine, grows up in Kenya, leaves for London during the Mau Mau uprisings, becomes an actress and marries a film producer, as Maureen Connell herself did.
Many writers of autobiographical first novels are so close emotionally to their material that they lose sight of the novel as a fiction, as a made-up thing with a life of its own -- a little like the mother who cannot separate her identity from that of her child. But Connell's novel is firmly rooted in place and time, and full of believable characters that exist apart from any connection they might have to their creator's life.
That achievement is particularly interesting in a novel with a plot that has a surface resemblance to plots in many feminist novels -- after giving up her career for husband and family, Mary Lacey becomes an obsessive mother and a jealous wife, has an affair and sinks into depression and drink. But "Mary Lacey" is never reduced to a formula that slights the complexity and individuality that makes experience mean something. Connell never forgets she is writing about particular people at a particular moment in time.
What distinguishes "Mary Lacey" is the presence of Africa, a mixture of the mysterious, superstitious world of its natives and the bourgeois, parochical society of its Europeans, a presence felt even in the largest part of the novel that is set in England. Growing up in Kenya is what distinguishes the woman Mary Lacey, makes her an outsider both there and in London, torn between the Kikuyu servants who tended her as a child, teaching her of their vengeful god Ngai, and the safe, materialistic, small-minded colonialism of the Catholic boarding school where Mary spends her adolescence.
Neither of the worlds, the African nor the European, is safe nor just: The unjust colonial society falls before the equally unjust new order, and it is the killing of her childhood nurse, Miriamu, by members of her own tribe that finally sends Mary off to England, determined to forget Kenya. But it is Africa that binds this novel, from its first sentence -- "The earth is red in Kenya" -- to the final scene at the funeral of Mary's brother, Elliot, in which the daughter of the African cemetery keeper "with a stick draws pictures in the red earth of Kenya."
But Africa does not become a Symbol. Similarly, though we see how Mary's childhood -- the early loss of her parents, the loneliness of boarding school -- shapes her life, we are not bludgeoned by the author's by the author's psychological insight. Restraint is one of this novel's most admirable characteristics, and it is to Connell's credit that she doesn't tie up everything neatly at the end: There has been change in Mary Lacey, a measure of acceptance of herself and of her heritage brought about by time and its inevitable tragedies, but though she and her husband love each other, their life together is still going to be difficult. This is the real struggle that life is.
Connell writes in a simple, straight-forward style that shows feeling for the language of her characters, but too often the characters' emotional upheaval can make her over-write. On Mary's reaction to her brother's death, for example: "She quivered as the fire of her suppurating wound spilled through her blood. The volcano had erupted at last. For so long she'd expected the flames to spew, that now a long shuddering sigh went through her." A writer who can deal with character and scene as well as Maureen Connell doesn't need any erupting volcanoes.