Monday, February 11, 2013

Josh reviews "Three Weeks in December," by Audrey Schulman

Audrey Schulman's "Three Weeks in December" was arguably the most surprising Europa I read last year. So surprising in fact that although I had read it in August, I had my book club read it just last month. Telling the story of two very different individuals in Africa on the eve of the 20th and 21st centuries respectively, this one gripped me from the very beginning. Jeremy and Max are captivating characters, richly and fully detailed. I think what made it so amazing for me was the level of research Schulman put into this book, reading over 75 sources for research material.

Half of the book is dedicated to Jeremy, a young man from Maine who journeys to Africa/flees from Maine to oversee the construction of a railroad in Kenya. Upon reaching a river, work stalls due to mosquitoes, rain malaria and a pair of starving lions forced by famine to hunt and eat humans. Jeremy, as the foreman, and holder of a gun, is expected to kill the lions. The other half of the book is dedicated Max, an ethnobotanist (also from Maine), who travels to the mountains of Rwanda in search of a vine that might lead to a breakthrough in heart treatment worldwide. She faces politics, rugged terrain, violence and her own struggles with interpersonal relationships in her quest.

A century apart, different in terrain, challenges, missions and outcomes these two stories nonetheless both manage to address the impact of the outside world on Africa's pristine, primal worlds.

"For a moment, he believed he had killed a hill, shot part of this landscape, pierced a hole in it for all this humid African air to whistle out of. Perhaps this was what the British were doing from the trains, not killing animals but slaying hill after ditch of Africa until the vibrant rolling landscape was deflated enough, dead enough, that England's neat hedges and tidy roads could be built over whatever remained."

The connection between the main characters and the primary animals they interact with could not be more telling. Jeremy, like the lions, is not thriving but surviving as best he can. Max finds more in common with the behaviors and patterns found among the gorilla's social structures than those of the humans she works beside each day. Another shared theme between the stories is the way these two individuals so alienated from the worlds they know as home both find their place in what should be completely alien worlds. It is among the gorillas and hunting the lions that Max and Jeremy are able to feel completely comfortable in their own skin.

Schulman's research shows in the level of detail that she is able to give to the setting and supporting characters in her book. The behaviors of the gorillas, the armed conflicts, the terrain, all of this creates a world you feel you inhabit as much as Max herself does. Every squelch of her toes in the mud, every sideways glance at the gorillas feels uncannily natural. "Someone touched her on the shoulder and she swiveled fast...After a morning with the gorialls, her hairless skin and confrontational stare seemed shocking, such a foreign species." Likewise, the dry heat contrasted with the blinding monsoon, the feeling of damp sweat inhabiting every crevice of Jeremy's body and the cooling relief of bathing in the river are as oppressive and frightening as Jeremy himself might have felt.

The symbolism may hit a bit over the head at times, and one comment from my book club was that they wished Schulman had not been so rigid in her one chapter for Jeremy, one chapter for Max structure. It made them feel alternately frustrated when the chapter they read ended and they really wanted to know more and rushed through the next chapter at times. I have to agree with that critique, her structure does in a way require the reader to be equally engaged in both stories for it to be successful.

Ultimately, this is a fine and unique entry into the Europa canon. It fits in with other Africa-based Europas, (In a Strange Room, Zulu, Of Beasts and Being, etc.), yet more than stands on its own. I would recommend this for a gray, rainy weekend when you need lush jungle environments and captivating protagonists. I look forward to more works by this author in the future.

This is also my belated twelfth entry for last year's challenge.