In this novel, Schulman gives us two stories, told in alternating chapters. One takes place in 1899 and follows Jeremy, a young engineer from Maine who has been brought to British East Africa (now Kenya) to help build a railroad for the British. Specifically, his job is to oversee seven hundred men in building a bridge for the railroad over the Tsavo River. Plagued by insects, shivering with malaria, and terrified by the mysterious dangers in this new environment, Jeremy struggles to act like the man he is expected to be. The only one with a gun, he must provide meat for the workers, hunting animals different from anything he saw back in Maine. His only companions are a cold and supercilious British doctor and a native who acts as a guide.
The other story takes place in 2000. Max, an ethnobotanist is sent to Rwanda in search of a vine that promises to prevent heart disease. She joins a small research group in the mountains who are studying the gorillas. Max has Asperger's Syndrome and is apparently close to the non-functioning end of the spectrum. Her parents worked with her, going frame by frame through cartoons to help her recognize and remember the facial expressions that “normals” pick up without noticing. In ethnobotany, she has found work that she loves and can do. She loves plants more than animals and people, in part because they smell better—she relies heavily on her sense of smell since she can hardly bear even quick glances at people's faces—and because “plants are more interesting chemically . . . Her third, and perhaps most important, reason for loving plants was that their movements never scared her.”
They are both outsiders, doubly so. As a white man, Jeremy is forever outside the native culture while his secret, something he is afraid to reveal, isolates him from white culture. Max's Asperger's effectively prevents her from relating to others, including her parents whom she loves but cannot bear to look in the face or be touched by. In addition, the possible threat she poses to the gorillas makes the research group keep their distance. If she finds the vine, the pharmaceutical company will send in legions of people, driving the already endangered gorillas even higher up the mountains, into regions where they cannot survive.
There are other commonalities. Both are threatened by outside forces, Jeremy's group by a pair of man-eating lions, and Max's by rumours of a group of rebels, child-soldiers armed with assault rifles and high on qat. Both are given charms to help them survive.
They also both wrestle with questions that go to the heart of what it means to be human. Max struggles with the implications of revealing the vine, should she find it, to the pharmaceutical company. Jeremy is appalled by the working conditions and mortality rate among the workers. At first he tries to encourage and reward them, but finding that ineffectual is tempted to succumb to beating them and docking their food. He admires Otombe, his native guide, for his skills and self-assuredness. The book explores interesting questions. Do human needs always take priority over the needs of animals? What makes one man more valuable than another: his tools, his education, his skills, his skin color?
The book is beautifully researched. Schulman thoughtfully includes a list of books for further reading in her Afterword. I especially liked the small touches about the wildlife and customs, such as the flannel spine protector 19th century whites were sure they needed to strap on under their many layers of clothing. Some of my favorite parts are Max's interactions with the gorillas. The members of the research group coach her on how to be around them without startling or enraging them, but she finds her own way of being near them.
Another of my other favorite parts is when Max first comes to the research group. Surrounded by unfamiliar plants, she marks off an area of three square yards and, plant by plant, examines each one, identifying it with her botanical encyclopedia and memorizing its characteristics. I love the descriptions. The crushed leaf of the first plant smells of “spicy vanilla with the overtones of a used Band-Aid. The roots of this plant had a different aroma, subtle, close to microwaved water.” By learning what plants are common in this area, she will better recognise the one that is unusual.
Everyone in my book club enjoyed the book. Some of us found it a little slow-going at first, but we agreed that it sped up towards the end. My only quibble with it is the rather abrupt ending which seems to cut off the stories rather than resolve them. I liked learning about the habits of lions and gorillas. I liked Max and Jeremy and cared what happened to them. At the same time, I was—as always—outraged and saddened by the depredations inflicted by Europeans and Americans as they pillage Africa for its plants, minerals and people.