Lee’s superb fiction often describes the collisions between people who hail from different cultures. She returns to this fertile ground in a new novel but widens her scope, suggesting some historical wounds are too deep to heal, and even a woman who believes she has stepped beyond her own tribal identity can never free herself totally ... Lee isn’t writing magical realism per se — she is conjuring up a locale where the power of superstition still holds sway ... Lee’s prodigious talent for physical description causes her to overindulge at points, and a few passages of Red Island House sound like copy lifted from a high-end travel magazine...Also, because the story is told in stand-alone stories, Red Island House has less propulsive power than Lee’s stirring 2006 novel, Lost Hearts in Italy ... But these are niggling criticisms of a gorgeous narrative that perhaps only Lee could have constructed — an ambitious attempt to use fiction to explore the reality of a world fractured by race and class, and divided between the haves and the have-hardly-anything-at-alls.
The ebb and flow of Shay’s marriage is just part of the story, as Red Island House contains vignettes about a fascinating array of characters and entanglements in the Naratrany society that surrounds though never quite embraces the couple. From the feuding female entrepreneurs whom Shay calls 'Sirens' to the local éminence grise who may or may not have spiritual powers, it’s a complex and seductive tapestry ... Lee’s striking writing is layered and thick with evocative descriptions of people, landscapes, feelings and foreboding. Sociological and psychological, it’s prose with the abstract feel of poetry. The stories of Red Island House are vibrant and enchanting despite the current of dread that runs through the novel from the start.
... lush, perceptive ... The Red House, like the entire island, is seductive, and Lee describes it exquisitely ... in league with other major novels that use far-flung locales to explore cultural asymmetry and racism, like Toni Morrison’s and Norman Rush’s Mating. And as with those books, Lee celebrates what distinguishes her setting – her descriptions of Madagascar are rich and deep. But she doesn’t succumb to the exoticism that makes the country feel 'ornamental and harmless,' as Shay puts it ... For a time, Shay and Senna’s marriage feels like an underdrawn element of the book –why stay in a marriage so suffused with anxiety, ignorance, and bigotry? But the closing pages explore that dynamic so well that Red Island House becomes a unique, surprising work – at once a psychological novel, a novel of place and a novel about relationships ... a savvy exploration of the many ways that plundering is done.