The Iron Snake by John Gaudet, A review
by Esmerelda Weatherwax (April 2007)
When I started reading this book I wasn’t too sure what to expect. Superficially a novel about the building of the railway into the heart of Kenya in the late 19th century looked set to be a ripping yarn, in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Rider Haggard. The opening chapters soon disabused me of that notion, about as quickly as one of the main characters is disabused of the idea that his new ladyfriend is the embodiment of Rider Haggard’s She. A relationship that ended shortly afterwards, shall we say, painfully.
Those opening chapters, when Gaudet carefully assembles his characters move slowly, but enlivened with flashes of sly humour
“That’s when it hit him, like a bullet, striking him right between the eyes: the realization that she had on a ring of enormous proportions, a ring so large that she would have no room left on that finger for Stephen’s.”
Once each of the principal characters arrives in Kenya on the eve of 1899 the railway reaches Nairobi from the coast and the story takes off.
The rail link from the coast through Kenya into Uganda was built at some cost, much danger and many lives. The Africans believed it fulfilled an ancient prophesy and called it the Iron Snake, hence the title of the book; the British newspapers called it the Lunatic Express. It’s still running and a trip from Nairobi to Mombasa remains something of an event, and one I sadly regret not experiencing.
Gaudet weaves real historic events and people into his narrative. I suspected (correctly) that Capt Jeffrey Porter was inspired by JA Hunter. There really was an incident of a policeman being plucked from his railway carriage in Kima by the lion that ate him. I have seen the carriage myself in Nairobi Railway Museum – see photo left.
The one thing which affected my enjoyment, to a certain extent, was the dialogue. There were two ways the dialogue could have been written. One would be to strive for complete accuracy in putting down the speech of middle and upper class British (plus one German family and an American) men and women of that period and risk the speech sounding stilted and dull. The other, which was the path chosen, was for the author to write in his own “voice” so as to convey the emotions naturally. That was the best course and perhaps I should not be so petty to complain about words like “gotten” and “railroad”.
Using that natural voice he draws some memorable characters. I came away remembering Karegi, who was raped and then rescued from an Arab slave trader and who goes on to become the first African woman to complete nursing qualifications. Alice McConnell who takes the advice of Syonduku the matriarch that in a husband she should look for “nothing more than a strong back and a courageous heart”. Brian Stanford and the cheetahs Lizzie and Jane. David McCann the ineffectual District Commissioner who thinks he is seeing visions of angels when he is really chatting to a seagull.
“It was at that moment David wondered if it would be appropriate to bring along a black cap, in case he had to condemn someone to death.”
But the real heroine of the book is Kenya, a wild and beautiful country on the brink of momentous events. Gaudet’s love of his heroine permeates every chapter. The twittering of the Kenya starlings, the change of light under the yellow-barked fever tree, the omen of the dead python damming a stream. The horror of rinderpest, smallpox and drought.
But despite his considerable knowledge of the terrain this isn’t a travelogue. It almost becomes a detective novel and then it does become an action thriller.
As Nairobi burns will Alice realise who is her man of the courageous heart? Will he succeed in stopping the runaway pay train in time? Will the villain succeed in his escape into Uganda with an oxcart of British rupees?
This isn’t a book that can be pigeonholed for the convenience of conventional booksellers. I recommend it.
If there are any filmmakers reading this it would make an excellent film, although there is no role for Hugh Grant.
Published by Brandylane Publishers Inc of Richmond Virginia. Available via Amazon.com.
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