This book blew me away. The research effort must have been enormous. There is so much insight and information included: about Aspergers, about animal and plant life, about the behavior of Silverback gorillas, about the building of the railroad and the workers who came to help construct the rails, about the difficulties associated with sexual orientation, about scientific research and the workings of pharmaceutical companies, about survival and survival instincts, about courage in the face of extreme danger, about the history of Africa and some of its tribal customs. Although there were two parallel stories, alternating chapters, one hundred years apart historically, it worked amazingly well and held my attention. I was never bored.
The author managed to write two completely different tales and then connect them in subtle ways, over a brief period in December, in 1899, and in December of 2000. However, there were times when the story faltered, lacked believability. Could Max have accomplished all she did physically with a dislocated shoulder? Would Jeremy have really been able to hunt the lions when he was so sick with malaria? Would the pharmaceutical company have abandoned its researchers? Also, although the ending took me totally by surprise, I thought it was the least effective part of the book, and a bit of a disappointment. It required a total suspension of disbelief. Perhaps it was the only way the book could credibly end for the way the tale was told, but I had hoped for more. For the most part, though, the story was riveting.
The book introduced many controversial topics which the reader will have to explore and digest. The characters are wonderfully developed and real. You can envision them as flesh and blood as you read.
The first tale begins in December of 1899, and except for brief paragraphs relating to Jeremy’s past, growing up in Maine, it takes place largely, in the country now called Kenya, the place of birth of President Obama’s family. It is interesting to learn about the life some of his ancestors may have led and the hardships they faced, so different from those in America.
Jeremy is an engineer, a man who builds functional, utilitarian bridges, but he is a man who does not fit in with his brethren. He is different and he is lonely. He needs a change, an opportunity. When offered, he takes a job in British East Africa to escape his past and to build a railroad. He hopes to be successful and then to purchase a plot of land and follow in the footsteps of his ‘grandpapi’, creating something from nothing, with hard work and dedication. He prides himself on his work ethic and his attention to detail and to the safety of the men who work for him.
The second tale begins in Maine, in 2000. Two pharmaceutical executives come to see Dr. Max Tombay, an ethnobotonist, to offer her a job in Africa, to try and find a plant that might have the power to cure heart disease; she happily accepts. Her future had been looming as one in which she would be researching fragrances, and that held no interest for her. She, too, needs a change, an opportunity. She is different and she is lonely. She does not fit in with her contemporaries. Plants are easier to interact with than people.
In some ways, the story of Max is more complete than the story of Jeremy, but in the end, it all blends and meshes seamlessly. Even though the chapters alternate with each story, they could each have stood alone. Putting them together allows the reader to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the two individuals who are both in Africa for similar, yet widely diverse reasons. Both, however, wish to escape the pain of their personality and their past. Reading the chapters alternately, illustrates how their lives collide with each other, connect and intersect, although separated by 100 years. Both characters arrive in Africa totally unprepared for what awaits them, but both are eager to begin their work.
Both characters are resented by their fellow workers in Africa. He is resented by the tribes who do not want their way of life destroyed by the construction of the railroad; she is resented by the other researchers who do not want her interfering or threatening and disturbing the safety and way of life for the gorillas. Still, they are both more comfortable in Africa. Both characters are able to control their emotions and maintain their outlook through their thoughts and memories. Although Jeremy is the only white man, his difference in other ways goes unnoticed. Max is the only one with autism, but her difference enables her to do her research thoroughly. She earns the respect of the others. Jeremy feels safer in Africa with the natives because they don’t stare; Max feels safer with the gorillas because they exhibit signs of Aspergers and they don’t stare. Their unreal expectations for the real world they have entered and the results of their actions, are thoroughly examined by the author with clarity, and there is an ever present tension and excitement which keeps you turning pages.
When finished, you may ask yourself why either of them went to Africa, when it was dangerous, even in 2000? Max went because she wanted to do useful research, find a cure for heart disease, to earn respect and perhaps be accepted and embraced as respectable. Jeremy went to get away from the inevitability of staring eyes. Both were trying to escape their differences and both left without concern for their own safety, so desperate were they for change and a chance to start anew. Both main characters wanted to make the world a better place. He wanted to build a better bridge, in a safer way for the workers; she wanted to save lives and find a cure for heart disease. Both preferred solitude and pursued thorough investigation to accomplish their goals.
You may further ask yourself, has there been any real progress in Africa? Has the country been tamed, civilized? Has the effort of other countries injured or aided its development, its natives? Did the railroad help build Africa into a thriving nation? Have the natives stopped attacking each other, cannibalizing each other, selling each other? Can Africa ever be thoroughly explored?
Although the stories are separated by 100 years, they both have surprisingly similar concerns to face: natives, wild animals, survival. This is a great book for a book club discussion.