Friday, March 9, 2012

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman

Three Weeks in December is one of those rare novels that excites, educates, and elucidates without preaching or belaboring.  It wasn’t until I put the novel down that I realized how much I’d learned about Africa, gorillas, Asperger’s, lions, colonialism, and unforeseen consequences.  Told in alternating chapters that evoke the language and pace of The Poisonwood Bible, this inventive glimpse into the “dark” continent opens in December, 1899, when Jeremy, a quiet, unprepared gentleman with a secret, travels from Maine to British East Africa with his beloved horse to supervise hundreds of Indian laborers brought in to build a railroad.  When lions begin attacking their camp and killing his men, Jeremy turns to his indispensable aide, Otombe, for assistance.  Otombe, the athletic, strong opposite of Jeremy, learned his perfect English when a British missionary couple raised him until he was six when they gave birth to their own child and returned him to his tribe.

Based on a real incident in the 1890s when two lions ate over 100 Africans, Indian railroad workers, and British administrators near the River Tsavo in what is now Kenya, the historically based sections are both informative and surreal in their intensity. Schulman’s taut, precise language makes the jungle, the animals and the people in it come alive with sentences like this: “Not a hippo chuffed, not a leopard rasped. . . At the moment, the silence was so crisp he could hear it ringing in his head.  Then the screaming started, the gunshots and the clanking of pans.  Camp.  At this distance, all the fear and frenzy was stripped from the noise, just faint clanks and pops and squeals, the pathos of bugs.  Above the other noises, one man’s voice cut through, a single word called again and again, crying out the name of his lost friend.”

In the alternating chapters set in December, 2000, we meet Max, an American ethnobotanist, who travels to Rwanda in search of a mysterious vine that could be a cure for heart disease. The coping skills Max utilizes to manage her Asperger’s give her a unique vista into the non-verbal communication of the gorillas in the remote mountain station where a violent group of young boys threatens the existence of the endangered animals.   If this book is made into a movie (and it has to be), whoever plays Max is almost guaranteed an Oscar as she’s one of the most peculiar and yet most endearing characters I’ve ever encountered.  Max’s skill at sitting quietly and observing everything around her allows readers to experience the land, smells, and sounds as if we were seeing it through her perspicacious eyes.   Audrey Schulman’s skill in making a character who eschews personal contact seem so compelling is masterful.  

As both Max and Jeremy are atypical outsiders dropped into an alien culture, their struggles provide drama and tension while exposing the underside of both development and preservation. The ending reinforces this tension and provides a great sighing “ah, ha” for the reader.  This novel is a paperback original from Europa Editions, the ones with the double fold covers that make reading such a pleasure. Europa provides novels that readers might not otherwise discover as it did with The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Because it’s a paperback original I predict that it’ll be a book club hit immediately.  I plan to beg my book groups to choose it.  Watch the book trailer and I think you’ll agree. If you do choose it,  Ms. Schulman will skype with or call your book group and answer your questions. Check her website to arrange a "visit."

Summing it Up:  Read this for the two compelling stories of Africa set one-hundred years apart.  Savor it for the unique characters, the surprising ending, and for what you’ll learn.  Buy a friend a copy as you’ll want to discuss it the minute you finish.

Rating: 5 stars    Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Historical Fiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: January 31, 2012 (paperback original from Europa Editions)

Author Web Site including an exceptional video book trailer:

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1 comment:

  1. As ususal, your comments were spot on. I feel like -- make that I have just experienced two wonderful books and like you have learned so much about so many subjects. The contrast and transition to a "fast-forwarded" Africa within the same novel was artful and profound. It merits a wide audience. We all need to think more carefully about the consequences of our actions on the planet.