‘The Jungle South of the Mountain’ by Andrew Westoll

Book Reviews

51vy5ZPX+oL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Reviewed by Amy Attas

In Toronto writer Andrew Westoll’s The Jungle South of the Mountain, a scientist, Stanley, is in his eighth year living in the South American jungle – not in some swank air-conditioned villa in the trees, but in a mouldy research camp with binders of data for decoration and a hammock for a bed. He spends his days – every single day – observing a troop of capuchin monkeys whose numbers have recently been mysteriously dwindling. His wife, a fellow researcher, left seven years earlier, around the time that their adviser disappeared, meaning his only human contact comes from the occasional tourist group hiking his trails and the local guides who are, sort of, his friends. Stanley is handling the isolation in much the same way as Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is to say that he feels he’s finally understanding the thrum of jungle though the city folk feel he’s gone mad.

A former primatologist-in-training, Westoll’s previous works include the acclaimed non-fiction book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which recalls his time volunteering at a Quebec sanctuary for chimpanzees that had been used for biomedical research, and The Riverbones, a memoir of his year studying capuchin monkeys in the South American jungle. Needless to say, The Jungle South of the Mountain is crammed with firsthand knowledge. His descriptions of flora, fauna and native interactions are precise, and the imagined world of the novel is layered with detail. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Andrew Westoll stacks his pages with specifics – the characteristics and tendencies of each species, the mood and climate of each territory – and just like in The Lord of the Rings some readers will skip over those details.

There is also lots of plot. Particularly in the second half, when the story turns Shakespearean and thrilling with woods that move, bodies that won’t stay dead and advisers – the wise and the rich – who sway the fragile protagonist’s opinions. Westoll also puts forth a convincing case for magic realism’s place in understanding the natural world, in the importance of folktales to scientific research:

All around him such boisterous, vigorous growth. Such wetness and disease. So many fang-like teeth and prehensile tails. So many greens. Basalt boulders shaped by the rain to look like the gills of a fish. Epiphytes like splashes of paint in the nooks of black-and-white trees… how had Stanley lost track of the jungle’s surrealist foundations?

There is so much in nature that we accept as reasonable, and yet, as Stanley realizes, the earth is full of phenomenon more suited to fantasy. Like Yann Martel, Westoll plays with readers’ expectations of “truth,” where the facts of what happened can’t describe reality as well as a story. This quote, however, also demonstrates the weight of Westoll’s research – hidden by the above ellipses are five more examples of the jungle’s magic that feel redundant. He often uses a complex phrase when a simple one would do – “Amerindian pendulum of homespun cotton” could just be hammock, and the phrase “Stanley arrived home every night so soaked with his own sweat that his shirt, pants and socks were suctioned to his body” would be sharper if Westoll just wrote “clothing.” Westoll also assumes a fairly broad scientific vocabulary that might feel basic to a field biologist, but to an arts major feels overwhelming. Whether or not you know what a “p-value” is, you will understand that Stanley and his ex-wife had a love built on nerddom, but it’s a better joke if you’ve taken first-year statistics.

Still, Westoll’s education and experience in the Suriname jungle should not be considered a fault. The Jungle South of the Mountain provides readers a trip to a place very few will ever visit – not just because Stanley’s jungle is remote, but also because Stanley understands it like only a biologist could. The depth and breadth of the natural world, through his eyes, seems almost endless. Westoll’s descriptions of the jungle liken it to an urban civilization, so personified are all the animals – and this positive view of the landscape stands in contrast to the ominous wilderness seen by cowering tourists as they pass through:

Stanley left camp as usual at five o’clock. Hiking the Voltzberg Trail just before dawn was like wandering a battlefield moments after the bodies had been hauled away. In the early years it felt like trespassing to go out that early, as if the forest deserved its privacy, but soon this feeling faded and it was Stanley who was desperate to keep the jungle at arm’s length.

The changing moods of the jungle through different phases of the day and seasons of the year are stark and convincing, so that when Stanley does eventually spend a night out, exposed to the jungle’s nocturnal threats, the layperson reader truly understands what’s at stake.

Not the most likeable character, Stanley may drink too much palum, the local rum, to get a good grasp on what’s happening to him, but Westoll still comes through as a thoughtful writer. He’s taken the novel to ruminate on big questions – the nature of time and other human constructs, the existence of miracles within the pragmatism of the natural world and the flawed choices humans make in an effort to do good – and though his written execution is imperfect, his ideas linger.

HarperAvenue | 336 pages | $21.99 | paper | ISBN 978-1443441858

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Amy Attas

Amy Attas is a graduate of York University's Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in anthologies by Summit Studios and Cumulus Press, and her reviews in The Rover. She grew up in Pinawa, Manitoba, and now lives on the road, sometimes planting trees.