Dian's Ghost

Dian's Ghost - Justine Saracen I almost didn't pick up this book because everything about it repelled me initially: The cover, the title, and even the blurb. I don't like books about kids, pets and by extension...gorillas. :) I'm not a fan of ghost stories either. And the first line of the blurb blurts out that the lead character killed in cold-blood! Now if that doesn't turn one off a book, I don't know what does.

But hey, this is Justine Saracen and no matter how outrageous the plot or hideous the cover, I know (or hope!) I won't be disappointed. And I wasn't. I may even be a little bit in love with the gorilla now. Or at least, the baby one, lol.

As the blurb says, Dana Norland shoots two men in cold blood and flees to the other side of the globe in Rwanda. That's probably the most controversial and problematic start to any lesfic book I've ever read. The answer isn't forthcoming for a while yet so the reader will just have to suspend judgment for the meantime and go along for the ride. And what a wild rollercoaster ride it turns out to be.

Dian's Ghost is a historical adventure thriller set in the Virunga mountains of Rwanda, where the real-life research center established by Dr. Dian Fossey, the famous primatologist who popularized gorilla studying via the book and movie 'Gorillas in the Mist', is located. This book is a tribute to her efforts to study and preserve the endangered species. By setting it in the 1990s Rwanda, a time of great civil unrest, the book also shines a light on a largely forgotten episode of genocide aptly termed 'paroxysm of vengeance'.

Eight years after the murder of Dr. Dian Fossey, the gorilla research center is now run by her protege, Dr. Kristen Wolfe. On one of her college lectures in NY, where she is actively recruiting research assistants, Kristen is approached by a seemingly over eager volunteer Dana Norland. Her willingness to uproot her life for one in the boondocks on such short notice surprises Kristen, but the lack of other volunteers means she can't be too choosy. When Dana finally sets foot in in the gorilla research center Karisoke, she is surprised that instead of dry, sunny Africa, it is a perpetually wet and muddy rainforest she's stepped into. And I was surprised she wasn't more shell-shocked and dismayed, going from modern day comforts to a no-plumbing, no-electricity, almost primitive living. Murderers can't be too choosy, I suppose. :) Anyway, her first sighting of the gorillas make it all worthwhile. The author makes a great job of bringing these amazing creatures to life, so much so that you'll soon realize why the real Dr. Fossey was willing to kill and be killed for them. And that brings us to the real underlying theme of the book : the morality of killing.

It's a wild, wild world out there. Where survival and greed often trump law. Man-made law, that is. It's also a gray, gray world too. The indigenous hunter-gatherer pygmies of the Virunga mountains have hunted wildlife there for centuries before hunting it became a crime. Habitat changes due to human expansion over the centuries have reduced their hunting grounds and their bounty considerably. From the looks of their clothes and possessions, they are not exactly thriving. What is more precious then, human life or animal life? For them, the foreign appetite for gorilla and other wildlife souvenirs provides just a little bit of respite from their daily struggle to survive.

And then there is greed. The very people who are tasked to preserve the wildlife (the park conservators) are sometimes the very ones facilitating their killings. Gorilla parts souvenirs, baby gorillas, elephant tusks, rhino horns, exotic birds and whatnot, all fetch top prices in the outside world. Are these people any better than the pygmies they pay to do the actual poaching?

And what about the customers who drive the market for these exotic souvenirs? How far up the chain does one need to go to stop this?

The book asks a lot of tough questions and makes us ponder some really thorny issues. As if the chase/rescue mission for our gorillas isn't action enough, our ladies may even be caught up in an even bigger conflagration, as the country teeters on the brink of civil war. And there's nothing civil about it, as one side aims to completely exterminate the other. How significant are the efforts to preserve a few hundred mountain gorillas, when hundreds of thousands of people are being butchered all around them? Suddenly, Dana's original problem, the one she's running away from, seems just like an insignificant drop in the bucket.

That was some really intense action and suspense. I can still feel it even if i'm just writing the review now. :) Needless to say, it was quite the page-turner. This is no ghost story, thankfully. But it is a very realistic, action/adventure tale, with a rustic lesbian romance. A definite must-read for action/adventure fans. Feminists will love the shout-out to Dr. Fossey. And Saracen fans will love the 'expected' twist at the end. ;)

4.5 stars

Why not 5 stars? Ms. Saracen's books always have so much going on, I wish it were a tad, or a lot longer. Mostly I wish I had been inside the characters' heads more. Dana, but especially Kristen. The supporting characters could use a little bit more fleshing out, for emotional impact. The pace was frenetic, but in the quieter moments, I wish there was more introspection.

Thoughts on the unfortunate cover:
It is not the gorilla image per se, but the feel of the cover is entirely too campy. This is a very serious book that would benefit from a darker theme. Certainly not a pretty lady on top of a gorilla. It may also be the wrong kind of gorilla. You get that from actually reading the book. Aside from being awesomely entertaining, it was also educational. :)

ARC received from Netgalley / Bold Strokes Books for an honest review.