Tuesday, January 21, 2014

CROSSING THE HEART OF AFRICA by Julian Smith ✰✰✰


What happens when you are at a major crossroad in your life and you make a radical decision to have one last wild hare event before making a commitment?  For author Julian Smith, the crossroads was finally deciding to marry his girlfriend, and the wild hare was to go to Africa and retrace the route of late 19th century adventurer Ewart Grogan from the Cape to Cairo.

Grogan made his trek in the final two years of the century in order to gain the approval of his beloved Gertrude’s step-father and his blessing on their becoming engaged to be married.  Prior to his journey through the Dark Continent, Grogan was nothing more than a Cambridge drop-out of humble parentage, while Gertrude’s family was one of New Zealand’s most prominent.  In the era in which they lived, becoming the first white man to cross Africa from south to north would bring Ewart fame, social standing (always of import to those colonial Brits), and open doors to enable him to make his fortune in the world.  So, after telling Gertrude that he would not contact her until he set foot in Cairo, having successfully completed his venture, Ewart Grogan set out to carve his place in history.
Author Julian Smith had read Grogan’s story and was amazed that unlike David Livingston and Henry Morton Stanley, Grogan is not remembered among the pantheon of great African explorers.  A freelance writer in a seven-plus-year relationship with his girlfriend, Laura, Smith felt a certain affinity for Grogan’s quest to find himself in the wilds of Africa, and so he decides to spend the final months before his marriage following the path that Grogan forged.

The book is essentially three tales: Grogan’s exploration story, Julian’s travel adventure, and Julian and Laura’s relationship.  My relatively low rating of the book is owed to the unevenness of the writing between the two adventure tales and the questionable necessity of the complete play-by-play of the modern couple’s path to a marriage proposal.

Let me begin with what I loved.  Julian Smith’s admiration of Ewart Grogan absolutely shines, and this passion feeds his writing about the explorer.  If he had written a straight biography of Grogan, I would have given the book five stars.  Unfortunately, Smith made the book part memoir as well.

After every section on the earlier adventurer, Smith tells his corresponding tale of traversing the same territory.  For the first half of the book it reads like one long whine fest, going from one mode of transport to the next, giving the reader very little compare/contrast info about the continent or its inhabitants between his time and Grogan’s.  Smith needed to get off the bus/boat/bike long enough to experience the journey.  To his credit, the second half of the book does show significant improvement in the telling of the author’s own story-that saved the book from a two star rating from me.

The third, lesser, tale of the book, the sojourn through the history of Julian and Laura’s relationship, felt completely irrelevant to the story.  Literally.  Everything the reader needs to know about their liaison is in the segments of Julian’s trip.  It was even more annoying because it seemed like every time the adventure story was at a cliff-hanger point it came to an abrupt pause in order to shift to another commonplace event from their rather ordinary (if you discount the author’s-admitted-inability to commit) life together.  The only thing I can say in the author’s defense is that the subtitle of the book, An Odyssey of Love and Adventure, does give the reader a heads-up that it isn’t all about being chased by rhinos while flagging from a malarial fever.

My advice to readers would be one of two things.  If you choose to read this book for its strong sections, skim or skip completely the relationship sections (unless you are really interested in that type of memoir, on its own merits).  Another thought might be to just give this book a complete miss and read Ewart Grogan’s own account of his journey, entitled From the Cape to Cairo.  Smith quotes extensively from Grogan’s work, and Ewart comes across as expressive and full of that wonderfully dry British wit and ability to find humor in just about any situation.  As I have not read Grogan’s work in full, I cannot compare the two and only offer the idea as a possible suggestion.

4 comments:

  1. I agree with you on the relationship part of the book. What was it doing there? I didn't like that at all. The rest was reasonably good, but I read a few books by Redmond O'Hanlon before I read this one, and they are much stronger books. Have you read anything by him?

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    1. I am going to be reading my way through a number of African history books this year, as part of a challenge. I began with Sierra Leone and will be interspersing books that cover larger swaths of the country. Ideally I will read more than one book on each country. When I get to the Congo (next up I am doing Liberia, as its history is closely linked with Sierra Leone), I do have one of O'Hanlon's books on tap-his No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo. He is an author I know nothing about, so it is great to have your endorsement!

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    2. I haven't read his Congo book but if it's similar to the other ones, it should be a laugh. He managed to make the Amazon book quite thrilling! Will they be eaten by the terrible Yomomani (or something like that)? It was good fun.

      Nice to see that you're doing a tour of Africa!

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    3. I am doing a Dive Deep Challenge. For years I have been accumulating titles about Africa, and I never seem to get as many read as I would like. I will not complete my list this year, and indeed my list doesn't even have all the Africa titles on my TBR, but I hope over the next couple of years to work my way through it. You can viewed my planned reads on my Challenges 2014 page-scroll down to the second challenge.

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