“Whatever they yell, they keep running. The only thing that stops them is the soldiers shooting bullets into their hearts.”
Told in parallel storylines both set in remote Africa, Three Weeks in December chronicles the stories of Jeremy, a young railway engineer sent to oversee the construction of an East African railroad, which has been plagued by malaria and lion attacks, and Max, an American ethnobotanist who is seeking the vine that could make a lifesaving pharmaceutical.
Max, the ethnobotanist with Asperger’s who treks across the world to find a life-saving drug, is by far the more interesting lead character; her literal understanding of the world, her fear of human contact, and her unexpected companionship with the gorillas is captivating and touching. Jeremy is too human – well-intentioned but weak, and plagued by a secret which is somewhat overblown. The key point is that he is powerless to defend his workers, and that his character deteriorates as he suffers the frustration of impotence.
The link between the stories is tenuous and irrelevant and revealed late in the piece, but that doesn’t really matter. Mirroring my reception of the characters, I found Jeremy’s storyline unsubtle, a bit dull and doomed to fail (although this is not intended to be entirely negative – a tragic plot is not invalid), while I wanted more and more of Max’s tale. The writing is deft and elegant without being elaborate; Schulman displays real skill in crafting Max so well.