My Sunday Best this week is a moving story of loss, resilience and courage, set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dealing with serious and challenging themes – child soldiers, coltan mining, endangered gorillas, and corruption – it nevertheless compels the reader’s rapt attention from the outset, plunging us at once into the beautiful and dangerous heart of the jungle.
Imara has a demon inside her. Surviving the bite of a black mamba, she has now become the Spirit Child of Black Mamba’s rebels, the talisman that keeps them safe as they attack villages and secretly mine national park land for priceless coltan. Black Mamba will protect her so long as she protects him, but Imara knows better than to show any weakness; she cannot allow herself to care for the vulnerable boys the Mambas pressgang after destroying their homes. Only the strong survive, and Imara has learned to be strong.
Bobo’s father is a national park ranger, devoted to the welfare of the gorilla troop. But when the troop’s silverback is shot, and Bobo’s father vanishes, apparently to join the rebels, Bobo is determined to clear his father’s name. His quest will bring him heartbreak, pain, and danger – it will also bring him to Imara, desperately trying to keep a baby gorilla alive among the Mambas. With violence, fear and privation on every side, what will become of them all?
The plot is swift-moving, the pace whip-smart, and Lewis’s characters, both human and primate, are especially enthralling; the sections of the story told from gorilla-perspective are wholly believable, heart-breaking without sentiment. And damaged, scarred Imara is a superb and unusual protagonist, fighting at all costs to stay alive, but unable to snuff out the compassion at her core. True to its subject matter, Gorilla Dawn refuses the easy analgesic of an uncomplicated happy ending: scars cannot be simply smoothed away, lost lives cannot be restored, and the earth’s wounds won’t heal overnight. But doing nothing, or succumbing to despair, is not an option. With work, time and hope, as Lewis shows, we can – and must – try for better, maintaining a bone-deep connection to our beautiful, vulnerable world.