In 1899 an American from Maine travels to the grasslands of British East Africa to oversee the construction of a railroad. He’s aloof, determined, and secretly gay. His name is Jeremy. In 2000 an American from Maine travels to the jungles of Rwanda to locate a rare plant with extraordinary medicinal properties. She’s aloof, determined, and she has Asperger’s. Her name is Max. How these two stories resonate, diverge, and dovetail is the subject of Audrey Schulman’s fourth novel, Three Weeks in December.
Schulman has a gift for blending the rounded psychological portraits of literary fiction, the action-oriented plots of Hollywood movies, and heaps of journalistic research. Three Weeks in December includes a bibliography of primary source material. But it also offers the kind of adventure seen in The Ghost and the Darkness and Gorillas in the Mist. And it revolves around two distinct characters whose lives illustrate and complicate the way individuals belong in a society.
Jeremy’s task is to build a railroad in spite of a language barrier, malaria, dismal worker morale, and the rogue, man-eating lions who are stalking his camp. But he’s driven by a genuine belief in the potential for a safer, less famished Africa, and by the fact that he’s unwelcome in polite, straight society. A hundred years later, Max is charged with finding an unidentified vine in a mountainous jungle, where her autism is a liability and her only companions—an international team of gorilla researchers—want her to fail. She’s also being targeted by a terrifying army of savage child soldiers. Max endures because the drug she’s looking for could save millions of lives, and because she finds it easier to be herself among the plants and gorillas than among the “neurotypicals” back home.
There’s a lot of baggage in writing about Africa from an American perspective. But Schulman confronts the familiarity of her setting with grace and conviction, refreshing the image of the African wild. For Max, being near a gorilla is “like standing beside a weighty and hunched aunt.” They have “that living scent of moose-like flatulence and crushed vegetation, of furry heat and adolescent sweat.” And here is Schulman describing Jeremy’s attempt to shoot a hippo.
A dark hill appeared on the path, lumbering closer. […]
Jeremy’s rifle cracked. Bright sparks from the barrel.
The hill fell down.
Occasionally the narrator steps in with overly grandiose statements, like “On this vast continent, she was thousands of miles from everything she’d ever known, in a situation she’d never imagined,” and “He had killed the lion on the first day of this new century, this century that stretched ahead of them, empty and waiting.” There is also a tendency for both characters to view their native African guides as the ambassadors of Africa’s otherness rather than true individuals.
But few books are as simultaneously edifying and gratifying and this one. Schulman’s description of a lion kicking out its victim’s bowels is stunning, informative, and hugely significant to her characters. The same goes for her argument that plants are the world’s best chemists. Hollywood movies might have similar cinematography, but Three Weeks in December has everything.
– Brian Hurley