Three Weeks In December by Audrey Schulman
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books
January 31, 2012
Like the plants, people, seasons, and animal life of Africa, Three Weeks in December will stay embedded in your memory for many years to come. Once you’ve touched ground with the antagonists, there is a feeling of intimacy and knowing that rarely occurs in a novel. This vibrant creation is actually two novellas wrapped in to one volume, with the stories alternating between Jeremy in 1899 in East Africa and Max in Rwanda in the year 2000.
The contrasts between the characters are extreme—yet there is also a similarity between them. Jeremy is hired as an engineer to help build a railroad through what is now known as Tanzania, in British controlled territory, while Max is engaged as a botanist by a pharmaceutical company to find a rare plant (for commercial purposes) in the gorillas’ sanctuary of the Virunga National Park.
Jeremy is a white man who is part of “progress” and “modernization,” while also hunting and being hunted by people-eating lions. Max is a black woman who arrives in Rwanda seeking to learn, observe, discover and appreciate the people, gorillas and life she finds. Both are completely out of their element.
Jeremy and Max were alienated and ostracized in America. Jeremy, because of his sexual preference and Max because of her Asperger’s (autism). Whereas, Jeremy’s family and community shamed and ostracized his very existence, Max’s mother fought for her tooth and nail throughout her life. Her mother’s determination is described as, “She was worn down as a rock pulled from the sea. All weaknesses battered away.”
In many respects, Max’s behavior and the description of her reactions, thoughts, and feelings as an “Aspie” closely resemble the real life professor, Temple Grandin, whose life has been popularized in book and film. A superb line offers a glimpse into how one woman with Asperger’s lives within: “The loneliness of her skin.”
Once in Africa, Max and Jeremy’s social anxiety and fears are confronted with torrential monsoons of choices in their individual environments and cultural situations. In order to literally survive, they must take chances, step outside themselves and trust others—a difficult task in the best of times, let alone in the worst.
Their past realities and moral compasses are continually questioned. At one point, Max is thinking, “She marveled once again at how chameleon was the human mind—capable of shucking off a lifetime of values fast as a dirty shirt—able to angle the facts toward whatever it found convenient.”
Read complete review at New York Journal of Books.