JOURNALIST Maggie Ritchie has delved into her own childhood background growing up in Zambia and produced the kind of historical romance that may prove to be this year’s perfect summer read, with a deliciously provocative mix of exotic locations, sexual scandal and the end of colonialism. The latter theme still mesmerises British audiences, and Ritchie doesn’t pull her punches on the part Scotland played in the Empire’s role in Africa. Add in a touch of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between and the novel’s mood of innocence destroyed — both of a country and of a woman — is sealed.

That may sound rather weighty but Ritchie’s tale is dominated by something more gossipy: an illicit liaison. Its political implications, though, are huge, for the affair is between a white English officer’s wife and a black artist. Evelyn is a bored girl living in 1970s London and trying to make her way in the city’s art scene. Robert Fielding rescues her from the unwanted attention of an ex-boyfriend, and his other-world attitude, his gentlemanly, stiff-upper-lip that harks back to a bygone age, prove irresistible to her. When he asks her to marry him and live with him in Zambia, Evelyn jumps at the chance to leave rainy old London behind and make herself anew in a country about as unlike as the one she grew up in as it is possible to be. Reinventing oneself is never as easy as it sounds, however, and she struggles to make herself at home in her new environment. It is a place where servants and ex-pats disapprove and gossip and operate against her, and military wives like her are expected to do little more than have babies. Bored and often left alone by her husband, Evelyn befriends a local schoolteacher and political activist, the unsuitable and reckless Gerry Mann. This relationship causes great tension in her marriage; her husband never forgave his mother for having an affair and is pathologically jealous of his young wife’s friendships with men. Matters get worse when Evelyn is introduced to a handsome and talented young artist, Joseph Makelele, whom she offers to help in his career.

The novel is narrated by two women: Evelyn in the 1970s and a young Scottish girl, Chrissie Docherty, twenty years later. Chrissie is a journalist eager to get a scoop and is in Zambia, where she grew up, to cover the unexpected and accidental death of a British woman. Memories of her past haunt her; she has a sense of something traumatic happening when she was growing up in the Zambian bush, when she knew Evelyn Fielding, but she can’t remember exactly what happened.

The parallel narrative from different eras is a tried-and-tested method in historical fiction, and Ritchie could have pushed this a little further. The use of gossip, subjective points of view and a politically charged atmosphere all lend themselves beautifully to unreliable narrators and a few more twists and turns, a few more surprises, would have been very welcome. While both Evelyn and Chrissie are sympathetic characters, with their dual sense of belonging and yet not-belonging to a country they fall in love with doing them great emotional damage, their fates are perhaps more predictably reassuring than they could have been.

Ritchie also emphasises the harmful benevolence of British involvement, as Chrissie’s father is trying to improve post-colonial education in the country in these early days after it has gained its independence. His ties to a colonial power, however, mean that his view is inevitably restricted and the new politics that excite Gerry Mann only infuriate him. Evelyn’s affair is inevitably a bridge between cultures and politics as well as races; the ex-pat Scots like Chrissie’s parents are horrified by what they see as her insensitivity to this new world.

Ritchie gives Evelyn’s world a pleasing authenticity, conjuring up the sights and smells and colours of the landscape with unobtrusive detail that also gives her historical romance the necessary glamour to make us swoon: “The bar looked out over a garden filled with the flowering bushes and trees she remembered from her childhood, their names enough to conjure a time when the world was fresh and clean and clear: jacaranda, mimosa, magnolia, frangipani, bougainvillea, hibiscus. The whoop-whoop of a hoopoe came through the open glass doors.” The secret to this genre’s success is that readers emotionally invest in and believe the love affair at the heart of the story, and Ritchie handles that relationship with perception and awareness. This is a novel to be enjoyed in the heat of a summer’s day, gin-and-tonic in hand and cloudless blue skies above.