In December 1899, Jeremy, a young American engineer, takes a job overseeing the construction of a railroad through British East Africa. In December 2000, Max, a young American ethnobotanist, accepts an assignment to search for a vine with astounding medicinal potential hidden in the mountains of Rwanda.
As these dual narratives unwind side by side throughout Three Weeks in December , they produce strange and surprising echoes, both concrete and thematic. Though separated by a hundred years, the two protagonists find themselves locked in similar conflicts with social and physical circumstances. The novel proves to be as much about Jeremy and Max and their personal struggles as it is about the African continent, about its status on the world stage and the story of global development over the past century.
At the same time, Three Weeks in December is also about man-eating lions, a tribe of gorillas, murderous warlords, child soldiers, and repressed desire–which is all to say that it’s as thoughtful and well-observed as it is gripping. This is a smart book that will keep you turning pages, something you can recommend to a wide variety of readers, like, for example, the entire population of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Three Weeks in December has been selected by the Cambridge Public Library for its annual Cambridge Reads program. If, like Chamber Four, you are from the Cambridge/Boston area, you’ll definitely want to give this book a shot and then go check out this fall’s author event with Audrey Schulman at the CPL on November 8th, where she’ll discuss the genesis of her multi-faceted novel. [Also check out my interview with Audrey, coming out later today.]
A multiple narrative can be a dangerous thing. If one voice or storyline is more compelling than the others, it can throw an otherwise enjoyable book off balance. I start slogging through one section just to get back to the “good” part. But that’s not the case here. Jeremy and Max’s stories are equally as compelling as they are distinct.
Max’s is perhaps the more surprising of the two. Though the modern setting might make it more familiar to today’s readers, her perspective creates a sharp sense of awareness and alienation. Max has Aspergers. She’s distressed by eye contact, and she’s only capable of reading non-verbal social cues in the most clinical way. As an outsider in everyday human exchanges, Max approaches interaction like a scientist.
At the same time, her aversion to eye contact keeps her from looking directly at most people. She collects evidence from quick glances and peripheral details. On first meeting representatives from the pharmaceutical company that wants to hire her, she tries to balance her skepticism about their offer against her observations:
These men, however, seemed serious. From the edge of her eyes she could see them lean toward her in their chairs: big men, ruddy skin, the sheen of expensive clothing, their hands clasped in front of them in a position reminiscent of prayer.
Filtered through Max’s perspective, the world reaches the reader piecemeal, assembled through an effort at understanding. Nothing is taken for granted. It adds energy to description while never distracting from the plot; instead, Max’s outsider point of view neatly compliments her journey into the Rwandan jungle.
Jeremy’s point of view is more conventional, but he shares an equally acute sense of personal alienation. He is one of only two white men in his camp and the only American. He’s not much interested in “the White Man’s Burden,” and yet because of his race and position, he finds himself in a role of assumed leadership. Responsible for the lives of hundreds of laborers, he tries to cut a strong, authoritative figure against his own natural proclivities.
He visits the camp infirmary in hopes of raising general morale, but the sight and smell of the sick and injured nearly incapacitates him, and he struggles merely to walk down the line of beds:
Just in time, he reached the far end of the tent, raising his hand in a casual salute good-bye. Three paces past the door flap, out of sight of the men, his left leg abruptly crumpled under him. He sat down hard, made no motion to get up, strangely content to listen to the rising static in his ears, while his vision tunneled in until all he could see was a single mango peel discarded in the dirt.
Jeremy posses neither an iron will nor even a particularly adventurous spirit; he only accepted the railroad job to escape his own past. And yet when the camp becomes the hunting ground for two lions displaced by the railroads expansion, everyone looks to him to do something about it–because he’s in charge, because he’s white, because he has the only rifle around for hundreds of miles.
It’s their outsider status that first links Max and Jeremy thematically. As the narratives progress, the consequences of Jeremy’s time become apparent in Max’s story; in turn, Max’s story reveals the persistence of certain motives from Jeremy’s day for Western intervention on the African continent. Without ever crossing, the narratives manage a silent dialogue about geography, exploitation, and power dynamics, driving their main characters to increasingly desperate action.
If that sounds like your kind of book, put Three Weeks in December on your summer reading list, and don’t forget to stop by the Cambridge Public Library on November 8th. No one will be eaten by lions. Probably.
Similar reads:The Cage by Audrey Schulman, Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett, and The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells.