The Riverbones

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It’s been a while since I reviewed a recent travel book. This one stood out among the books I read last month.

The Riverbones by Andrew Westoll

Andrew Westoll spent a year as a primatologist chasing monkeys through the jungles of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve. He returned five years later as a writer obsessed with finding the secret soul of this poorly understood country.

Few outsiders have heard of Suriname, and even fewer can place it on a map. It’s a surreal place — a former Dutch colony, rich in resources but badly governed, home to indigenous peoples and Maroons (the descendants of escaped slaves brought from Africa), and quite possibly the world’s last Eden. Ninety percent of it is covered in jungle, but the image that remains at the end of the book is that of the riverbones: a forest of lifeless trees poking skeletal fingers from the reservoir of the Afobaka Dam, and the 43 drowned villages at the bottom of all that murk, flooded to power an aluminum smelter that no longer exists. It’s a moving example of how human rights and ecological preservation compete with the simple desire to build a better life.

This insightful book brims over with obscure bits of history, stories of shamans, Brazilian gold miners, political murders and shady characters of every tropical stripe. Westoll also paints a vivid picture of the disconnection endured by the traveler who truly drops off the map: that feeling of being trapped in a culture he can’t understand, and simultaneously lost to the life he left behind to go there. To travel like this is to be alone among strangers.




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