Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book Review: Wild Coast by John Gimlette

Wild Coast
In Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge, John Gimlette recounts three months spent travelling in Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. He travels extensively, interacts with many of the locals and provides historical background on the region.

It quickly becomes clear that potted histories will make up a large part of the book. Unfortunately, those are the least engaging passages (often stretching to numerous pages at a time). I often found my eyes glazing over as he detailed yet another instance of slaughter, uprising or unjust treatment of slaves. It's like the difference between wading through dry backstory and lively, engaging scenes when reading a novel.

At some point in writing the book, I believe Gimlette sensed this potential shortcoming as well, and so he utilizes some different methods in an attempt to spice up the narratives. For example, he occasionally switches to present tense and imagines what a particular historical figure may have experienced in certain situations instead of relying on dry summary. Some readers may find these sections enjoyable, but I just wasn't drawn into many of the stories.

In one chapter, Gimlette ventures to the location where the American preacher/cult leader Jim Jones and his followers set up the notorious Jonestown in the middle of the jungle. I've read a very good book about Jones and the build-up to the mass suicide/slaughter of over 900 people in 1978, which makes the retelling here particularly watered down and ineffective.

Of course, interspersed throughout the history lessons are descriptions of the places as they exist today. Gimlette provides contrasts to the way things were, and discusses the ways in which the past has shaped the present. Those passages can be quite entertaining.

Some annoyances crop up in Gimlette's writing. Like many good writers, he seems to forget, at times, about the importance of the good old-fashioned transition. Transitions between sentences, and between paragraphs. In this passage, he tells us about an important house in Georgetown. Yet, while I was reading, I wasn't quite sure about the details. Was it abandoned? Or was it a historical site preserved for tourists? If I had to bet, I'd go with the latter. But why not just bring the reader up to speed? If not at the beginning of the passage when he too is puzzled at the status of the house, at least clarify things after the fact.
The Red House was  grand and yet spartan, and covered in bristly crimson shingles. At first I though it was abandoned: the shutters were bolted, and the grass grew long in the yard. But then I noticed that the front door was open, and so I went inside.
After a while an Indian appeared.
It's never quite made clear who this Indian is.

Another related flaw: assumptions about how easily readers will lock onto his descriptions and actually know what the hell he is talking about. In this passage, Gimlette describes the architecture in Georgetown. No logical, realistic image rose up in my mind based on his description:
In a city of lacy buildings, this was the laciest of all. From the outside, it reminded me of a wedding dress, all spotlessly white and frilly.
Other times, the lack of information seems to be the result of poor editing. For example, here he writes about Jim Jones:
By 1963 he's head of the human rights commission, and his disciples assume a new name, the People's Temple Full Gospel Church.
Yet in the above sentence, I have no idea which particular "human rights commission" he is referring to.

A number of times, he mentions people with "blue" hair. I assume he means hair that is so black that it has a slight blue tinge. Maybe I'm being a stickler, but I would guess more than a few rubes reading the book would be left scratching their heads. More appropriate would be to explain that effect the first time he comments on "blue" hair and then in subsequent mentions it would be clear to everyone.

Similarly, more than a few times he uses metaphors that left me a bit perplexed. There's a fine line between using tired old metaphors and crafting good, original metaphors that are effective and easily understood.

Finally, while many of the here-and-now passages in the book were quite enjoyable to read, a certain sameness to many of the characters detracted from the believability. To be sure, he interacts with a wide variety of people from the towns and the countryside, from different ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds. But inevitably they are almost all incredibly, nice people, or at the very least, honourable and genuine. Most of them are cast in the "unforgettable character" mold that stretches belief. I suppose it would be hard to get a glimpse of people's dark side in such a relatively short time, but still, some nuance would have been nice. It's not surprising then, that Gimlette offers up the occasional observation that can be classified as faux incredulity. In short, these passages say, it's hard to comprehend that such nice people should hail from countries that have undergone such turmoil.

Of course, Gimlette can write very well. In this short description, he highlights his literary skills and unwittingly includes a good criticism of his own writing:
As he talked he smoked, and his hands swooped around making vapour trails, like a dogfight in front of his face. He was thrillingly articulate but not always easy to follow.
Here is another paragraph in which he demonstrates his ability to describe settings in a vivid and evocative manner:
Eventually, at dusk, we reached the Burro-Burro River. It was like a streak of blackened glass sliding away, off through the trees. There, high on a bluff, we slung our hammocks and ate some chunks of catfish. It tasted of trout with an extra dollop of pond. Then we opened some rum, settled in our hammocks and waited for the show to begin.
Yet just as often there is an awkward turn of phrase or a built-in assumption that necessitates re-reading. For example:
She was round and exuberant, had a tattoo on her face and was dressed in a Guyanese flag. 
More explanation required. It sounds interesting. Is it an actual flag? If so, how is it fashioned into a garment? Or is it a t-shirt with an image of the flag on it? Or, is he trying to suggest that this woman is extremely proud of her country? The subsequent paragraphs don't seem to suggest that.

I have no doubt that many readers will enjoy Wild Coast. The sections which include histories of the places Gimlette visits may appeal to them a great deal. For me, the result was a book which I was never quite eager to return to after I started reading it. Also, as mentioned, the flaws in his writing became tiresome. At least one good re-write and some more editing would have produced a far better book. I believe that Gimlette saw some amazing things and was impressed by the incredible scenery and bloody history during his three-month journey. Unfortunately, because of his emphasis on the past and the shortcomings in his writing, I was never able to fully share his enthusiasm.


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