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19 January 2014

Chris Muir: A Savage Garden

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The future hope for the Congo
This is a debut novel by an Australian author set in a part of Africa he knows well - The Republic of Congo. It is a dangerous place (5.5 million people were killed in the second Congo War and subsequent famine) and free-lance militia still roam the country killing anyone who gets in their way.

Jack Norton, ex US Navy SEAL and helicopter pilot, came to Africa 20 years ago wanting to make a difference. Jack is still there, now a jaded mercenary who will take any job as long as it pays enough for his beer in seedy bars in dangerous countries throughout Africa. When Jack agrees to fly some injured children in a borrowed helicopter to a remote hospital in the Congo he doesn't realise that it will change his destiny, the destiny of many children and possibly the destiny of the country.

At the hospital Jack meets Sophie Boissieux, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières, and asks her why she came to Africa. She replies "Guilt..(the children) have so little and I have so much". Despite their differences Jack and Sophie make an emotional connection that will change his life for ever. He also meets Jolie, a spirited teenager with a wooden leg, and agrees to fly her to an orphanage which will be able to give her an education. As they fly out Jack sees the hospital overrun by rebels who fire at the helicopter and he flees.

Jack's world collapses and he goes back to a world of eternal hangover until he is approached for help by a huge African American who wants him to help protect him and his a troop of child soldiers. The children call him "Papa Jim", a kindly doctor with a plan to send these boys abroad to be educated so they can return and become the future leaders of a stable country. Papa Jim is funding his "intelligent revolution" from a secret diamond mine but his enemies want to take the mine away from him. Jack gets involved in a bloody battle to save the mine and the boys.

All in all this was a promising, action-packed and surprisingly compassionate debut novel about a part of the world which is rarely covered in fictional thrillers. At the end of the book I found it difficult to rate it so I revisited parts of the book and found  that they were much better than first time around. My main reservation was that the battles with the diamond dealers became a bit over the top and similar to many of the action-packed escapist adventures where the heroes take on an army and win despite overwhelming odds.

It is good to find another contemporary author with the knowledge and skills to write something about Africa that is action-packed, realistic and compassionate. It is also interesting that Chris Muir has a similar background to one of my favourite authors, Tony Park, also an Australian, who has also travelled widely in modern Africa, and fallen under its spell.

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