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Shelf Awareness: "Unexpected, absolutely original, believable and so beautifully told that the reader leaves the book feeling amazed and completely satisfied."

Date: Jan 23 2012

Book Review: Three Weeks in December

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman (Europa, $16 paperback, 9781609450649, January 31, 2012)

In Audrey Schulman's (The Cage) ingeniously plotted novel, we read two stories, happening 100 apart, that come together in a most unexpected way.

In 1899, Jeremy, a young engineer, leaves his small town in Maine to oversee construction of a railroad across East Africa. He's left home because of a secret that has alienated him from everyone. The new start in Africa is a rocky one. He is wracked by malaria, afraid of much of what he encounters, bereft of companionship and, worst of all, his camp is attacked by two lions who drag sleeping Indian workers to their deaths. Because he is the white man with the gun, he must hunt and kill the lions. A skilled African hunter assists him, though Jeremy must make the kill. Finally, he fulfills his mission and is lauded by all, but his hunter-guide moves on, leaving Jeremy once again bereft. As the new century dawns, he makes an unusual connection with another person--one that will resonate through the years.

In 2000, Max, an ethnobotanist, is a high-functioning autistic, unable to make eye contact or to bear being touched by anyone. Her social skills may be lacking, but her credentials are in order---she travels to a gorilla station in Rwanda for a pharmaceutical company in search of a vine that might have lifesaving properties. Mountain gorillas are benefiting from the vine, showing a marked reduction in cardiovascular ailments, so the company wants her to bring it back for their use.

The other women in the station--and one man, a native--are unwilling to help Max, although they all know where the vine is. If the vine is found, the pharmaceutical company will harvest it, withdraw all financial support from the station and remove the hired guards. The mountain gorillas--already driven to a habitat too high for long-term survival--will be hunted as bushmeat. The differing agendas of the women are spelled out, but what none of them expect is an invasion by the Kutu from Congo. They draw closer every day; these warriors are children in cast-off wedding dresses and too-big sneakers bearing Kalashnikovs they are only too happy to use. These are kidnapped children who have known nothing but war and deprivation; automatons with killing weapons.

Max is utterly fearless and forms a real connection with the gorillas, especially with Rafiki, whose child, Asante, she saves from eating deadly nightshade. Rafiki leaves food for Max, and Titus, the alpha male, saves her from falling out of a tree. Schulman paints an unforgettable picture of this young woman who has never had a friend or lover bonding with the primates in a tender and mutually respectful way.

The way the two stories come together is unexpected, absolutely original, believable and so beautifully told that the reader leaves the book feeling amazed and completely satisfied. --Valerie Ryan

Shelf Talker: Two stories set in East Africa, 100 years apart, come together in a surprising way.

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