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book review

Andrew Westoll shows off his Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for his book, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery, in Toronto on March 5, 2012.Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press

In 2009, Andrew Westoll released the memoir The Riverbones: an immersive tour of the peoples, politics and rich biodiversity of Suriname. Now, Westoll has returned to those same fetid (and very fertile) grounds with his first novel: a fascinating story of science and myth, intrigue and murder, animated by timely questions of how to live – with intelligence and wonder – amid the mysteries of the natural world. It's a tale of post-colonial tensions, personal heartbreak and even adventure – and as such, it forms an intriguing, if sometimes overgrown, thicket of ideas.

The Jungle South of the Mountain is, specifically, the story of Stanley: a white primatologist studying a troop of monkeys in the neo-tropical rainforest. Tensions emerge from the onset: Seven years prior, Stanley's field supervisor vanished in the jungle; his infant son died and was buried nearby; and Maria, his wife and fellow scientist, abandoned him soon thereafter.

Now, locked into an "unbreakable habit" of fastidious research, Stanley keeps his camp a sealed museum to happier times – with doors locked, figuratively and literally, against memories that might disturb his palum-numbed existence. Once a year, he receives a letter from Maria, but doesn't dare open it (and with the why of her departure kept a mystery, his loneliness is genuinely affecting – as is his deluded sense that she'll one day return). Though he sometimes drinks with indigenous locals – and enjoys pranking clueless ecotourists when he can – Stanley's beloved capuchins are his most consistent companions, his most reliable joy. So, when they begin to be plucked from the trees, one by one, by a ferocious harpy eagle, we feel his desperate need to protect them – and the book is off to a lush, resounding start.

The drama unfolds against the backdrop of an equally strong setting. The novel plunges readers into the cacophonous rainforests of South America, landscapes Westoll brings to riotous life via his lived experience as a biologist. Here, we encounter a primeval world of "surrealist foundations," of both "boisterous, vigorous growth" and "wetness and disease." A vivid reprieve from the Canadian domestic (or Gothic), Westoll's jungle teems with spectacular beauty and savagery, both animal and human: elements that make Stanley's isolation and instability all the more acute.

This is Suriname, by the way, in everything but name; the local "Maroons," in the Sranan tongue, speak of how their enslaved ancestors once overthrew their Dutch overlords, winning relative autonomy throughout a century of war. Rumours spread of a new uprising, poised to coincide with a pivotal election. Mostly unconcerned with politics, Stanley turns to a trusted elder to help track his marauding eagle, but soon finds himself drawn into the volatile realities of his adopted home. Moreover, he discovers from his guide that the eagle is no ordinary quarry, but a supernatural harbinger of mythical power – and symbolically tied to the mustering revolutionary forces.

Ever the scientific rationalist, buttressed against anything that cannot be recorded and contained, Stanley's acceptance of the spiritual, the wondrous and the holy, forms one of the book's central concerns. Do we view nature as a thing to be "revered," or something we might "gain authority over"? Does our immersion with nature entail "annihilation" or "amalgamation"? As his fate becomes entwined with the country's peoples and creatures, Stanley begins to regain his "sense of awe, his attention to mystery." And in doing so, he becomes at once more unhinged – his carefully hidden past threatening to ruin him – and more whole, more capable of living in our irresolvable world.

After The Riverbones, Westoll wrote the RBC Taylor Prize-winning The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary – a vital document in the struggle to extend our sphere of empathy to our fellow animals. Works such as this can – and should – tear the heart to pieces.

But, though I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of The Jungle South of the Mountain, this novel lacks the sophistication of Westoll's other efforts. After a very taut start, the narrative begins to unwind in small but collectively unseating ways. Harmony with nature, a renewed embrace of the sacred, a redressing of the white colonial subject embedded in the "diseased politics of post-independence" – such concepts feel too bluntly executed, too on the nose.

Other novelistic lapses – expository, overly dramatic dialogue, a rather convoluted climax, a lack of crucial character background to justify some truly callous acts and the need for characters to literally collapse when emotional (I counted six full- or near-topples) – highlight a heavy-handedness entirely absent in Westoll's non-fiction. Of course, while this is his third book, it's his first novel, and these missteps are not likely to recur in his next.

Stanley's transformation – and Westoll's empathy – is a rebuttal to a capitalism designed to exploit and extract without regard for the Earth, our well-being or that of other animals. In execution, it forms a dignified work of art: unevenly matched to his previous, excellent body of writing, but still a promising sign of fictions to come.

Spencer Gordon is the author of Cosmo.

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