When I was younger, I was a huge fan of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novels A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, in which a girl is whisked from darkest India to a very different environment in England, usually in the wake of a family tragedy. As captivating as those novels were to my preteen self, what was always missing was a real portrait, not just a glimpse, of what the heroine’s life was like in the exotic place from which she came. Katherine Rundell’s Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms does exactly that. Instead of making Zimbabwe some mysterious “other” place, she imbues it with color, love and vibrancy. Her heroine, Will, is born to English parents who have made Zimbabwe their true home, and Will seems utterly suited to the country’s wild landscape, fascinating wildlife and friendly people.
Rundell’s third-person narration stays just on this side of sentimentality, as she clearly idealizes Will’s fearlessness, independence and joie de vivre. But her affection for her heroine is contagious, and when, after a series of personal tragedies, Will is sent to an English boarding school full of students more concerned with perfecting their nail polish than with exploring the world around them, readers will experience along with her a sense of disorientation, exclusion and profound homesickness. Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms offers readers a sympathetic and enticing portrait of a part of the world they might not have heard of before reading this book, but will certainly be intrigued by ever after.