Set in Africa, Audrey Schulman’s gripping new novel, “Three Weeks in December,’’ tells the alternating stories of two people, a century apart, locked in a struggle not just with the wildness that surrounds them, but that lies within them.
It is the last month of 1899, and Jeremy, a young engineer, takes a job in British East Africa overseeing the construction of a railroad, the purpose of which is not so much to transport Africans as to claim the land and attract colonists to settle there. Eager to leave his hometown in Maine, where his repressed but undeniable homosexuality has made him an outsider, “[h]e felt he had been born anew in Africa, with the delight of an infant in each unfamiliar sight and with the same inability to recognize danger.’’
Though he insists on bringing his horse - an animal ill-suited to the suffocating heat and humidity of this new climate - Jeremy is not clueless. He is alert to the privileges and obligations of his class and the hunger of the indigenous people around him; he works long hours, and does his fruitless best to ensure the health and safety of his Indian laborers.
But as he and the workers he supervises approach the Tsavo River, malaria sweeps through the workforce. More lethal still are the nightly attacks by a pair of lions. Wracked by fever himself, Jeremy enlists a local man, Otombe, to help him trap and kill the predators, and in their time together, he finds a map to his own survival.
One hundred years later, a large pharmaceutical company sends an ethno-botanist named Max to a mountain gorilla sanctuary in Rwanda, created to preserve the dwindling population that has been ravaged by poachers. Her mission is to find a vine that could be tremendously powerful in preventing and treating cardiac disease.
Max is well-suited for a solitary study of plants and trees. She has Asperger syndrome, and “[t]his difference between her and others allowed her to understand there wasn’t just one speed in the world; other organisms could have a different meter to their movements. When she looked at a tree, she saw not a stationary object, but a photo of a dancer in mid-motion, the gesture of its branches describing its battle for food or love.’’
In Rwanda, she discovers an ease and empathy with the gorillas that eludes her in social contact with human beings, but it’s short-lived. The civil war in the neighboring Congo spills across the border, threatening not just the gorillas but Max and her colleagues with violence, terror, and rumored cannibalism.
Though they face different predators, Jeremy and Max’s stories run tightly in parallel. Max has come to a mountain in Rwanda to find the next blockbuster drug for the heartsick people of the industrialized world. Jeremy has come to Kenya to lay train tracks, “the force of the future riveted with steel and wood into this red earth . . . which would funnel in trains and machines, colonists and attitudes, carrying in all the freight of this next century.’’
Financed by corporate interests, threatened by drug-addled soldiers who are victimized by messianic leaders, thrumming and battered by the frantic stimuli of the 21st century, Max, the poachers, and the soldiers are that freight. And like the ties binding the tracks together and relentlessly forward, Schulman’s prose propels us through these poignant stories, leaving the echo of Max and Jeremy’s fear and ecstasy in its wake.
Julie Wittes Schlack, a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities, can be reached at email@example.com.