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Page-Turners, by Land and by Sea

Far as I can tell, none of Audrey Schulman’s earlier novels has anything to do with Africa, which is amazing given the depth of feeling and understanding, the sensitivity, for the continent expressed in Three Weeks in December.  Schulman has clearly done her homework, identified more than seventy books she read as preparation for her own writing—in addition to spending time on the continent.  She’s obviously an astute traveler and gifted novelist; her three earlier works are going to have to be catch-up reading for me, though with no sense of duty those of us who review books too often feel.

Moreover, reading Three Weeks in December, you’re getting two novels because the intertwined narratives (one set in the last three weeks of 1899 and the other in the same period of 2000) could easily stand by themselves, though that would be an enormous loss for the reader.  Let’s say that with Audrey Schulman’s latest work you get twofers, two fine stories for the price of one.  Not a bad deal at all; in fact, a genuine bonus.

In December of 1899, an American named Jeremy makes an ill-fated decision to accept a job overseeing the construction of a railroad in British East Africa, though you could say that Jeremy, an engineer, has been pushed into this action.  He’s young, in his mid-twenties and has embarrassed his family by demonstrating homosexual tendencies, and they’d just as soon be rid of him for a while, though they’re praying that he’ll return home straightened out.  Schulman knows, as do most readers, that Western literature is rife with stories of men who go to Africa and find their inner sexual selves, especially when it comes to homosexuality. But it’s the circuitous route that Schulman follows to get Jeremy uncloseted that is so imaginative.

The backdrop of the story is the masculine environment that Jeremy discovers himself plunged into.  He’s got seven hundred Indians (Coolies) employed by the British government to lay the tracks in an area not far from Lake Victoria.  The doctor, who is there to aid these workers, is British; and Jeremy’s faithful African guide in the area is another male.  As is also true of one of the two lions that ravage the worker camp after dark, picking off another victim or two each night, since these two lions have decided that what tastes best are human beings rather than the indigenous wildlife in the area.  The other problem is malaria, which kills additional men every day.

Soon after Jeremy arrives in East Africa, he discovers that African men often walk with one another holding hands. That in itself is enough to get him worked up.  When Jeremy finally shoots one of the two lions, Schulman employs a less than subtle act of having one of the Indians remove the creature’s testicles, just at the moment when Jeremy’s own passions have become most uncontrollable.  Enough about Jeremy in East Africa.

Max (a woman) ends up in Rwanda in 2000 for a totally different reason, though she is even more of an outsider than Jeremy, because she has Aspergers Syndrome.    She’s also an ethnobotonist sent by a large pharmaceutical company to identify a rare vine that contains “five times the beta-blockers of anything known to science.”  The area where she expects to locate the plant is also one of the remaining refuges for gorillas, pushed further and further up into the mountains by poachers who would kill them for bush meat, protein—food for starving people.  The area is also close to a wacko group of religious fanatics, call the Kutu, with affinities to the real-life members of the Lord’s Resistance in near-by Uganda.

The story of how Max bonds with the guerrillas (who share similarities with human beings who have Asperger’s) is wondrously related, the highlight of this duphonic narrative.  For the first time in her life, Max believes that she can make a connection, actually communicate, with something beyond herself.  Then, all hell breaks loose because the Kutu are on the move, leaving one camp and trekking to another.  One of the other researchers at the gorilla site tells Max, “If you bring back that plant, people’ll swarm over these mountains, harvesting all of this plant the gorillas need.  Searching for other plants.  They’ll scare the gorillas up higher and up there they’ll starve.”

Schulman is not afraid to tackle difficult moral issues about man’s humanity and his relationship to other creatures on this troubled earth.  The two stories blend in seamlessly with one another, creating counter tensions that are parallel with one another within a fast-paced narrative that becomes compulsive reading.  And Africa itself—much more than mere backdrop in these two stories—well, it’s an Africa that continues to lose as the West relentlessly plunders the continent.

Three Weeks in December
By Audrey Schulman
Europa Editions, 353 pp., $16.

NOTE:  To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, Europa Editions has reprinted Beryl Bainbridge’s 1996 novel of that event, Every Man for Himself.  This marvelous novel will drown out the images that remain in your head from James Cameron’s movie (also about to be re-released, but this time in 3-D).  What is especially provocative about Bainbridge’s version of the sinking is her focus on the upper class passengers—names we all recognize: Astor, Guggenheim, Morgan, and others traveling first-class.  They’re depicted as rather nasty people and self-serving, reflected by the title, so it’s difficult to have much sympathy for them when the ship goes down.  That holds true for the novel’s narrator—a distant relative of J. Pierpont Morgan—who at the beginning of the story is cut from the same cloth.  But that changes in the course of this always tight narrative.  Furthermore, Bainbridge captures the utter frivolity of many of their lives and their total distain for those in the lower cabins/classes.  When the ship is struck by the iceberg, they go on drinking and partying with little worry about what is imminent.  As young Morgan observes, “No one seemed particularly disturbed by what had happened.” Every Man for Himself won the Whitbread Best Novel Award when it was first published.  Reading it all these years later, it’s easy to understand why the novel was so highly praised.

Every Man for Himself
By Beryl Bainbridge
Europa Editions, 202 pp., $16.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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