A beasty book of beasts – my best book surprise so far: The Beast in the Jungle by Louis Bayard

Book Reviews, Book Thoughts

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Kermit has been cajoled into accompanied his aged and ailing Father, former president Theodore Roosevelt on an exploration down an uncharted river in the Brazilian Amazon despite his imminent marriage. When they get lost in the jungle and discovered by a tribe who command them via Luz, a missionary’s daughter, to kill a mysterious beast that has destroyed many people. Kermit comes to realise the beast is more than flesh and blood and more akin to the spectral hallucinations that have haunted him his whole life.

This is one of the best surprises I’ve had in book blogging so far! I requested this from Bookbridgr, not really sure what to expect, and when it arrived the size, shape and cover made me expect something fairly dry and historical. But though it was a bit slow to get started, the book grabbed my attention and took me on an engrossing adventure where I really had no idea where I was going.

The scenes and descriptions were marvellous, the characters well-realised and the adventure thrilling – the interplay of different cultures and the relationships were cleverly conveyed and explored.

The book started very realistically (though slightly dully) detailing the exploration of the river, and it took a little while for the real action and beast of the jungle to appear. This gave an interesting flavour to it: we see everything from Kermit’s viewpoint, which we have already come to trust with realistic details. The beast which seems so out of the realms of reality is presented from a trusted source – but we still can’t quite believe it.

Therefore we don’t know what to think of what Kermit thinks. Is this all a result of tribal imagination? A Brazillian creature we’ve not heard of? Or more supernatural, as it appears to be? The tension and mystery is sustained well: and mixed with well painted characters who have definite opinions, the puzzle of what is actually going on is engrossing.

The characters of different races, backgrounds and personalities were intriguing in themselves. I particularly enjoyed the more retiring Kermit’s interactions with his larger-than-life eccentric father; the balance of differences which separated them and family ties that brought them together was well played.

The main female character, Luz, was also well portrayed. She could easily have been set up as a stereotype: warrior princess or damsel in distress or even just confusing and complex, but instead she had a definite self-hood that didn’t depend on any male, an intelligence, world-view, opinions and a plan. Unlike the two-dimensional fiancΓ© Belle, who Kermit was distantly in love with – but her shallowness was rather the point.Β A nice device was that Kermit could speak Portuguese to Luz, who could then translate to the tribe, which meant that all communication had to go through them, creating a in between space that only they could understand.

Structurally we move between Kermit’s experience in the jungle and his life outside of it through his reminiscing, highlighting the strengths and fissures in his relationship with his father and what made him who he is now, and also showing the effect of the time in the jungle on the rest of his life. This adds to the mystery and broadens the scope of this experience, though I would have liked to know
more about after the jungle – it felt unbalanced.

This was a surprising, exciting and mystifying adventure that I’d recommend – though keep pushing through the first bit!

 

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