Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of A Kiss at Kihali by Ruth Harris, a mystery-romance set in Africa, which I finished reading last week.
Characters: The story features two main protagonists, both clearly drawn and intriguing. “Lanky, dark-haired” Renny Kudrow is director of the Kihali Animal Orphanage in Western Kenya. He’s an authority on animal communication. He can’t actually talk to animals like Dr. Dolittle, but he’s only about one step away.
Renny is assisted by the new veterinarian, Starlite Higgins (LOVE that name), who has yet to prove herself, as the book opens, to Renny.
Ruth doesn’t go overboard with the physical description, but offers enough so that readers’ own imaginations can get a picture. Here’s Starlite. Did I mention I love that name?
She is already dressed, wearing the same outfit she wears every day—beat-up jeans, a grungy rumpled tee, a pair of well-worn hiking boots. Her fair skin is freckled and peeling from sunburn and her unruly copper-colored hair is braided into messy pigtails.
A third protagonist is a baby black rhino “Zuri” (Swahili for “beautiful,” according to an author’s note in the book’s beginning), orphaned by poachers in a heartbreaking first chapter.
The supporting cast includes other animals, and staff at the orphanage among others. All are well-characterized.
Plot: Killer poachers are on the loose, and it’s up to Renny and company, working with an understaffed Kenyan constabulary to stop them. Meanwhile, Renny, Starlite and Zuri fight to come to terms with the emotional devastation in their pasts, and Renny and Starlite struggle to come to terms with each other.
Setting: A game preserve in Western Kenya is the book’s setting. Ruth gives a nod to description of this strange and colorful land, which I visited in the 80’s as young Navyman.
Here, Renny takes to the air in search of the poachers, and we get a look at what he would see if he wasn’t so preoccupied with finding the bad guys.
The little plane dips and soars over the lush savannahs, the sparkling rivers and streams of Nakuru but Renny, focused on finding the murderous criminals, hardly notices.
He barely registers the snow-capped peaks of Kilimanjaro in the distance. Doesn’t marvel at Lake Victoria, the world’s largest tropical lake, glittering below in the triangle created by the intersection of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. His mind directed elsewhere, he doesn’t even properly take in the herds of zebra and impala, giraffe and eland or even sprawling acres of the unsullied emerald forests of the Nakuru Reserve below.
Most of the story takes place in the orphanage compound. There’s not much description of this fairly generic setting, but once in awhile, Ruth offers a nugget like this:
He is sitting on the veranda of the main cottage of the Orphanage, drinking his first mug of hot, sweet, milky tea and watching as the night’s dark sky gives way to the light of the rising sun and turns the tall, yellow grass of the distant savannah gold.
What I thought could be done better: Not much. This is a professionally written book, and Ruth hits every number from copy editing to character and setting description to plot and theme.
That said, I’ll offer my own completely subjective opinion — one that I could easily argue the other way. I feel that the book’s own high quality — intriguing characters, exotic locale, important theme — all deserve a longer, more in-depth treatment. I’m not saying A Kiss at Kihali is incomplete, or that it should be padded.
But it is wrapped up quickly and neatly with a minimum of fuss and mess — that may be a plus for some readers. I think the story’s frame could easily support more context — details of the day-to-day life of these interesting characters in this fascinating locale and situation.
And while Ruth offers glimpses of her amazing setting, it’s not the “extra character” that such a setting has the potential to be.
What I thought was good: Here’s where I contradict what I just wrote. A Kiss at Kihali is cleanly and economically written, making it a fast read — it’s already more of a novelette than a novel. It’s also written in present tense, which gives the story an immediacy and intimacy.
The story is obviously well-researched. Along with action, drama and romance, readers get insight into the terrible problem of African poaching, delivered on a personal level.
Of course it’s the characters who drive the story, and Ruth’s tightly scripted emotion-driven characters are compelling.
He is courteous but distanced and Starlite, ashamed of her failure during the rescue, is uncomfortably aware of his displeasure.
“I’m sorry about the air gun,” she says. “I’ve been in dangerous situations with animals before so I’m experienced. I do know how to handle the problem—” She doesn’t expect to be comforted but she does think her apology might at least be acknowledged, if not accepted. Instead, Renny doesn’t reply and the silence between them stretches out awkwardly.
“I have to convince you that you can trust me, don’t I?” she asks finally. Her fingers fiddle nervously with a braid that has come partially undone as she blames herself for her lapse and thinks that, before she can convince Renny Kudrow to trust her, she must first convince herself.
“Yes,” he replies bluntly, his craggy, not-quite-handsome features dark with disappointment and disapproval. “What happened to you out there?”
What happened is something Starlite can’t summon the language to discuss.
Ruth’s story does not miss a beat.
Overall: If the only criticism is “I was left wanting more,” then I think you have to say the story is a success — and A Kiss at Kihali is all that. It’s filled with satisfying slugs of danger, drama, action and attraction between sympathetic characters, with overall themes of selflessness, love and compassion.
Good job Ruth!