Jun 02, 10
Read from May 24 to June 02, 2010
** spoiler alert **
I thought long and hard before giving this book a 4-star rating. This is another of the books sent to me as a first-reads winner, and I must say I always get something interesting that I might not have picked up on my own. This book is no exception.
The story is set in Kenya prior to independence, taking place over a period of months in late 1961 and early 1962. It revolves around Dr. Natalie Nelson and a family that loosely resembles the Leakeys, who made many dramatic paleontological discoveries in the Rift Valley. A dramatic discovery of the first hominid to walk upright starts the story. The men involved in the discovery raid a Maasai graveyard for contemporary bones with which to compare the find. Subsequently, one of the men is found murdered. Dr. Nelson believes she saw the perpetrator on his way to commit the crime. The story proceeds from there, complete with tribal issues, comparisons of African and western justice, Dr. Nelson's, determination to tell her story in court despite pressure from all sides not to do so, and the requisite, if somewhat understated, romance.
This is a very complex story, and it took some time to begin keeping all of the characters straight in my mind and begin to understand their issues and motivations. The Deacon family dynamic is at the heart of the story, especially the rivalries between two brothers, Christopher and Jack, both of whom are more than a little interested in Dr. Nelson. As is just about every white man in the story. Dr. Nelson is recovering from the end of an affair and the death of her mother, along with an estrangement from her father. She comes across as a very intelligent and highly principled young woman, though unsure about her future.
The complexity weaves its way along, and I confess I was never bored. Mackenzie Ford does a great job of explaining basic principles of paleontology, along with capturing some of the tension in pre-independence Kenya. Most of his characters are compelling and their motivations are clear. However, I think he failed to truly capture Jack Deacon, harping on his desire to marry and have children, when indeed I believe he was a much more complicated man.
The ending comes up rather suddenly and unpredictably, despite some very clear seeds for it being sown during the course of the book. Without giving it away, let's just say it isn't a happy ending by any stretch of the imagination.
Some of Mr. Ford's writing would benefit from additional editing. One thing that drives me insane is when an author seemingly can't make up his or her mind about which word best suits his descriptions, so he throws in all of them just to be sure the reader "gets" it. There were two instances of this on the first page, which almost made me put the book down. "Natalie was weary--no, she was drained, exhausted, spent. . . and, . . .she had left Cambridge sometime yesterday, and she was anxious, longing, desperate to reach Kihara camp. Really, make up your mind and tighten the writing.
I gave this 4 stars because frankly, once I got into it, I couldn't put it down. It was a good read, and I relish complexity in a story. Too many these days seem to be just a one note harping. This book is well worth the effort. I learned quite a bit about an area, paleontology, where I know very little. And that goes for Africa, too.