Thursday, February 3, 2011

The African Queen by C. S. Forester

Genre: War, Romance, Adventure
Rating: 3
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s

The year is 1914, it's Central Africa and the First World War has begun. Rose's (our heroine) missionary brother dies as a result of the Germans, and Rose and the cowardly captain of the African Queen (otherwise known as Allnut the hero) set out to strike a blow against the Germans. A growing awareness of each other and numerous obstacles build tension but will they achieve their objective?

Views about the African Queen seem to fall into two camps: people who love it and people who hate. Given my recommendation, I obviously fall into the former.

My enjoyment started with the uniqueness of the heroes. They're not young or beautiful; they're more anti-heroes than heroes. Rose, in particular, isn't a glamorous heroine with her "... approaching middle age ... " (p4), her "... slow[ness] of speech and of decision" (p18), and "... her big chin ... [and] ... thick eyebrows". (p22) And Allnut is similarly unprepossessing.

I also enjoyed the two characters of Rose and the tension between them. Allnut had spent most of his life avoiding trouble, and is a coward to boot who "... might be ready to admit to himself that he was a coward ... but he was not ready to tell the world so". (p33) Rose, unlike Allnut, however, has an upright, noble soul with a single-minded dedication, much in the mould of her brother and father.

Rose's transformation over the course of the novel is what seems least believable for most people, but I think her transformation is more than possible and hinges on the sudden dissolution of the narrow world she'd inhabited since birth:"Rose had been accustomed all her life to follow the guidance of another ...", and "Rose had always been content to follow his [her brother's] advice and abide by his judgement" (p25). Removed from her brother's dominance, on the day her brother dies Rose realises "... with a shock that she had left behind the mission station where she had laboured for ten years, her brother's grave, her home, everything there was in her world, in fact, and all without a thought". (p37). What must it be like to lose everything you've ever known, including your moral compass, and be alone with a man doing things you never imagined in pursuit of a goal you devised and you're pursuing?

That it must be a shock is an understatement, and without the immediate insertion of her goal Rose might well have returned to a world she knew and continued living her narrow life. But this wasn't to be Rose's destiny. Rather, "... now that she was alone the reaction was violent. She was carrying out a plan of her own devising, and she would allow nothing to stop her, nothing to delay her. She was consumed by a fever for action." (p53), and she wasn't prepared to allow Allnut's cowardice or prevarication to get in her way. I think it's entirely plausible when Forester suggests that "Perhaps Rose had all her life been a woman of action and decision ..." (p51), and never known. You go girl!

The progression from strangers to physically intimacy is important in the context of the story and one of the nicest parts of the books (in a non-voyeuristic sort of way, of course). And not surprising; two people with a common goal, Allnut's belief in Rose and the impact on Rose of "Freedom and responsibility and an open-air life and a foretaste of success ... working wonders on her." (p99) . I don't think it's surprising that "For once in her joyless life she could feel pleased with herself ..." (p107). It's also interesting the need Rose fulfils in Allnut and his happiness in the new relationship "Whatever he might do in the heat of passion, his need was just as much for a mother as for a mistress. To him there was a comfort in Rose's arms he had never known before" and All the misery and tension of his life dropped away from him ..." (p113)

And the final few things about the novel are harder to refute:

1. how Forester is as subtle as a sledgehammer: he spells absolutely everything out and leaves nothing to the imagination (see all the quotes above). It's one way to tell a story and in Forester's hands it's not as bad as it might be in others. I enjoyed understanding how they felt and I didn't think it detracted from the story. It takes all kinds.

2. that there's no way Rose could have learnt to read the river so quickly. But why not ... it seems Rose has a natural affinity for the water when on the first day "... she filled with pride at the thought that she had understood them [the boat and its manoeuvres]. And in the same paragraph "Rose could not imagine what that fast current would to to a boat if it caught it while jammed broadside on across a narrow aterway, but she could hazard a guess that it would be a damaging business". (p41) Obvious, but nowhere near as bad as Thomas Hardy could be in my book.

3. there are so many obstacles to overcome ... about half a book's worth if I was being sarcastic. Enough said by me; I can't argue against it.

We leave the end of the story with Rose as the force in the relationship, and Allnut happy for the two of them to forge a life together as "... they left the lakes and began the long journey to Matadi and marriage. Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided." (p246) Rose and Allnut achieved happiness during their odyssey: they grow, overcome great odds to achieve it and are better people as a result. Building a life together without the odyssey is likely to be as difficult, if not more, for Rose and Allnut as it would be for anybody else ... but I like to think that Rose's growth and Allnut's faith in her will help them achieve happiness.

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