Reading Group Guide for Leopard at the Door
Over the course of the novel, Rachel—though always one of the more progressive characters—develops a more nuanced, less naive view of the impact of imperialism and racism in Kenya. How does this happen? Which characters and events are most influential in this transformation?
Were you surprised by the romance between Rachel and Michael? Why, or why not? What does each see in the other? How does their relationship develop and grow?
Discuss the role of memory in the novel. How does the past come to bear on Rachel’s aspirations, values, fears, and triumphs? How might Michael’s perception of the past differ from Rachel’s?
How does the legacy of World War II figure into the story?
Consider the reference to the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel in the novel. How is Rachel’s story similar? How is it different? Do you feel any sympathy for Robert, Rachel’s father, and Sara, his mistress?
Rachel’s home Kisima is located in rural northern Kenya and is so isolated that the closest neighboring farmhouse is an hour away. What impact does this setting have on the story? Why was it important for this story to be set there, rather than in a metropolitan area like Nairobi?
Much of the novel is concerned with imbalances of power and the fight for control and dominance. What relationships and institutions illustrate this theme? How do various characters try to exert control over Rachel? How do the European settlers try to control the African natives?
Discuss the importance of some of the smaller characters, such as Harold, Jim the cook, Kahiki, Nate Logan, and Lillian Markham. What does each add to the story?
The novel is not only a love story and bildungsroman but also a gripping and tense depiction of a turbulent moment in history. How did the author build the suspense in the story? Which were the most heart-pounding moments, and why?
Near the end of the story, Rachel is involuntarily committed to a mental institution because of her affair with Michael. What do these scenes convey about the function of asylums in British colonies in the 1950s?
In the postscript, Jennifer McVeigh quotes a historian who notes that only thirty-two European settlers were actually killed by the Mau Mau, yet the European characters in the novel treat the Mau Mau as a mighty threat to their own safety. What accounts for this discrepancy? Do you see any parallels to how rebellious and subversive groups, especially those whose members are mostly not white, are perceived today?