Sunday, March 25, 2012
Book Review - Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman
Three Weeks In December, Audrey Schulman’s latest novel, takes place in East Africa, and is two stories, really, though both stories revolve around people who are more or less outcasts in the community in which they live and who make great strides in discovering who they really are when they’re sent to live and work among strangers in a strange land. Each story covers the same three weeks in December, and each is told in alternating chapters, built around a genuine historical event. The first story takes place in 1899, while the second takes place in 2000.
The first story revolves around Jeremy Turnkey, a fragile young civil engineer, who is the only American working for the British in the construction of a five hundred mile railroad across British East Africa, from Mombasa to Kisumu, in what is now southern Kenya. Jeremy, who hails from Maine, intends to remain in Africa and make it his home once his engineering job is over. “[h]e felt he had been born anew in Africa, with the delight of an infant in each unfamiliar sight and with the same inability to recognize danger.”
To help Jeremy complete the railroad are hundreds of African natives and even more workers imported from India. Unfortunately, as the men approach the Tsavo River, where they will build a bridge, at least twenty-five percent of them begin to sicken from the malaria that is endemic to that waterway. And if malaria doesn’t get them, there are jungle ulcers, or parasitic worms that hatch in their feet and eventually feed on their brain that will.
Although Jeremy seems a little clueless about Africa, at least at first – he does, after all, insist on bringing his horse to the jungle, and the horse suffers for Jeremy’s indiscretion – Jeremy is not clueless. Nor is he heartless. He works long hours, and he does his best to make sure the laborers working under him are safe. The most immediate threat to Jeremy and his men comes from two huge rogue lions, one of which is more than nine feet long, and who have a definite predilection for dragging the men out of their tents at night. These lions are so powerful they managed to kill two people, twenty miles apart, on the same evening, and even for a lion, that’s no mean feat. As the boss, Jeremy must protect his men, something it would appear he’s not cut out for at all. Otombe, however, is.
Otombe, a beautiful man of incredible physical grace and stamina, is Jeremy’s African guide, and with Otombe, Jeremy, now sick with fever himself, keeps nightly vigils over the course of several weeks, in an attempt to kill the lions. Besides protecting his men, Jeremy feels that killing a lion or two will help him in his plans to make a home in East Africa. “Shooting a few pesky predators is an integral component of the colonization process,” a British colleague tells him. “I have seen it work time and again. The tribes immediately become more pacified, convinced we whites offer certain benefits.”
But killing the lions would also cause Jeremy to lose the pleasure of Otombe’s company, something he is loathe to do. Somehow, Jeremy will have to come to terms with the warring forces inside him, and chart a map to his own survival.
The second story strand takes place during the same three weeks in December as Jeremy’s does, but in the year 2000, and it revolves around a woman, also from Maine, who, like Jeremy, has been ostracized by her community. Max Tombay is a postdoctoral ethnobotanist with Asperger’s syndrome. When Max’s story thread begins, she’s being asked by Panoply Pharmaceuticals to journey to northern Rwanda to a gorilla sanctuary in the Virunga National Park in order to discover a mysterious vine that grows there, one that contains powerful natural beta blockers and would be capable of saving the lives of thousands of cardiac patients, while greatly enriching Panoply’s shareholders, of course.
Max knows that job offers – good job offers – will be few and far between, and if she doesn’t take the position offered by Panoply, she might very well “spend her life researching deodorizers.” In the search for an elusive vine, however, Max’s Asperger’s – and the pinpoint focus it gives her – usually a deterrent, will be a benefit. So Max accepts, and soon finds herself in the midst of three female scientists who are making a serious study of mountain gorillas.
“You search as long as you want, very long I hope,” one of them tells Max, “but I am not helping.” None of them is helping. The three scientists are “normal,” i.e., they do not have Asperger’s; they are, as Max calls them, “neurotypicals.” They are not happy to see Max, and even more unhappy with her mission in Rwanda. Should Max discover the vine, harvesters employed by the drug company would overrun the park and destroy the gorillas’ habitat, which the researchers fear will soon be under siege from poachers and a strange band of drugged rebel children called the Kutu, led by a Congolese warlord who favors tattered wedding dresses and cannibalism.
Schulman does a very good job of portraying Max’s Asperger’s and her extremely heightened sense perceptions. When she was a child, “sensation seemed to pour in as an uncontrolled flood, shimmery and overpowering,” Schulman writes. As an adult, Max has control of her condition, most of the time, through sheer willpower, a diet of oatmeal, rice, tofu, and bananas, a wardrobe of gray pants and gray tee-shirts, and the practice her devoted mother gave her in learning to “read” facial expressions by noting the movement of the specific muscles in use.
Asperger’s under control or not, Max in Rwanda is Max completely out of her element, and this makes her a vivid character – far more vivid than poor tragic Jeremy – though Max can, at times, come across as distinctly “bristly.” This “bristlyness” is softened, however, as we get to know Max and share in her painful past and the challenges she faces daily as she deals with her disability. And, as we get to know her, most readers will, I think, care deeply for her, especially as she discovers a real empathy with the gorillas.
I loved the structure of this book, but I’ll admit, it carries the inherent danger that one of the storylines is going to be far stronger than the other, thus overwhelming it. And so it is in this book. Max’s story is the real story here, and this is coming from someone who began reading the book determined to find preference with Jeremy’s. I dislike reading about people with Asperger’s (no offense is meant, it's painful for me to do), and, as a general rule, I prefer stories set in 1899 to those set in 2000. Still, even though Max’s story is so strong, one can’t deny the emotional pull of the far quieter Jeremy’s. When I was reading Jeremy’s story, I was anxious to get back to Max’s, and when I was reading Max’s, I was equally anxious to get back to Jeremy’s. Both of these persons are looking for themselves, for truth, for life, and yet both, if they are successful in what brought them to Africa in the first place, will bring death and destruction to the continent. If Jeremy is successful in getting the railroad built, “civilization” and suffering will find its way into East Africa; if Max finds the coveted vine, human lives will no doubt be saved, but the gorillas will be destroyed. And, both Jeremy and Max feel the lure of holding back, of deliberately not completing their jobs, of preserving the status quo.
Naturally, comparisons are going to be made between this book and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I can state without equivocation that I greatly preferred Three Weeks in December. The psychological portrait of its protagonists is deeper and richer and more mature, and though Patchett writes beautifully sensual prose in State of Wonder, giving a reader a vivid close up look at the Amazonian jungle, I found myself more “at home” in Schulman’s book, and she, too, is vivid. I could “smell” the river water, feel the long grass brushing against my legs, squint against the bright sun burning through the acacias. Schulman also made me feel much empathy and affection for the gorillas. The passages revolving around them are extremely moving.
The stories of Jeremy and Max run parallel to each other, and Schulman does tie them together at the end of her novel. Most readers are going to be able to predict just how she does it, even those like me who aren’t usually good at that sort of thing, but that takes nothing away from the enjoyment of their stories.
This is a beautifully written novel revolving around highly unusual people who are simply searching for a place in the world. It’s a book that affected me deeply and it’s not one I’ll ever forget.
5/5 (Cover Art)
Recommended: Anyone who liked Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is probably going to love this novel. I think it’s a deeper, richer, and far more believable novel than Patchett’s Amazonian story. This is a beautiful book that at times is truly heartwrenching. The book's cover art is beautiful and very fitting for the story the book tells. This is a softcover book, but it does have French flaps, which I love.
Note: In his Booker acceptance speech last year, Julian Barnes stressed the importance of cover art. As an amateur photographer who wants to learn more, I've always been very aware of cover art, so beginning with this book, I'm going to give each book I review a "grade" on its cover art as well as the overall "book grade."