In the last ten years I’ve written novels set in variety of historical periods. A relationship with an Egyptologist produced the two book Ibis Prophecy, set in Egypt and the Middle East. A trip to Rome was the inspiration for Sistine Heresy, and a brief infatuation with Eddie Izzard (don’t ask!) after a trip to Venice stirred me to write Sarah, Son of God. Lastly, moving to Brussels and meeting descendants of World War Two Résistance fighters got me researching and writing about the war in Europe. With three war novels under my belt (and one in manuscript), I think I count now as Bold Strokes Books’ official WW2 author.
So, why suddenly gorillas?
Well, for one, during those years, I became a doggie-and-kitty-and birdie parent, and got to know species other than my own, up close and personal. Admittedly, my first revelation was that the primary functions of these non-homo sapiens is to eat and poo, and my primary responsibility was to allow for both. But the payoff, of course, is that they also offer and receive affection.
In addition, living now in a French speaking culture, I spend a lot of time watching nature programs with a slowed-down French that I can follow. Who wouldn’t understand “Voila, le tigre chasse l’antilope,” and vacillate between sympathizing with the ‘le tigre’ or ‘l’antilope’?
Under these conditions, an issue that had been niggling for years at the back of my mind began to niggle a little louder: the abuse of animals.
I am certain I share this love of animals and hatred of their abuse with everyone reading this blog. Along with this sympathy also goes an outrage at both the abuse of domestic animals and the poaching of wild ones. Not to mention that we are all painfully aware of the ongoing slaughter of rhinos, elephants and Cecil the Lion. This congealed in me into an overpowering urge for justice or, if not justice, then a certain exquisite revenge. Thus arose Dian’s Ghost.
Dian, of course, refers to Dian Fossey, who spent some eighteen years in the study and care of mountain gorillas, and gave her life for it. I wanted to honor her and at the same time create a satisfying fiction of retribution for her murder, and the murder of her (and all) animals.
The novel opens with a cold-blooded double execution, and the murderer is Dana, our heroine. Dana is not one of those sexy superheroes who knocks off enemy agents for the Greater Good of the Western Democracies, but an ordinary woman who is pushed to the edge and over.
It took some narrative sleight of hand to get her out of the country, but I managed, and voila, soon she is safe and working in the Virunga mountains, examining gorilla poo (because that is what you do when you study gorillas.) The poo-poking job is admittedly not so great, but her supervisor, the successor to Dian Fossey at the Karisoke research center, is a pretty fascinating woman. So there’s that.
Inevitably, Dana meets and comes to love a family of gorillas and, in the course of things, rescues one of their infants. And because the baby gorilla has been orphaned by the murder of her mother, we are set on the course of another revenge. Dana is good at revenge, so suddenly it’s no longer fun and games.
But by now we are feeling a bit ill at ease with the revenge thing – and that is the point.
The novel is unashamedly a thriller-romance. And you can sweep through it just for that. But if you wish to slow down and consider the implications of what is happening, you realize, you are facing some deep moral questions. Simply stated, when is it all right to kill?
I personally find capital punishment dangerous to rational civilization in which at least lip service is paid to justice. Errors are possible, groups are disadvantaged, and DNA tests have exonerated more than one condemned man in the last ten years. It also seems repugnant for the state to have the right to end a human life when execution demonstrably has no deterrent effect on other murderers. Killers do not commonly weigh the risks of their kill before undertaking it. Even the argument that “the use of killing is to show killing is wrong” is deeply flawed.
And yet…I understand the deep satisfaction of revenge, particularly against someone who has grievously harmed the innocent, and I include in this the gratuitous harm of animals. I do not believe that human life, per se, is any more ‘sacred’ (a word that has absolutely no meaning) than any other life. All vertebrates appear capable of affection, and many show signs of self-awareness, sorrow, and moral behavior. And they know when someone is killing them. (Before you ask, yes, I am a vegetarian.)
My own personal morality – which I admit is both self-contradictory and slightly biblical – is that to the extent possible, we should not harm other creatures. All things deserve to have a go at survival. But if a person causes unnecessary pain and harm to a creature for pleasure or profit, that person foregoes the right to be unharmed in return. Consequently, while I am still against capital punishment as it stands (see explanation above) in the cases of George Bush, Dick Cheney, neocon war mongers in general, certain Middle Eastern heads of state of all religions, the creepy dentist who killed Cecil the Lion, wild life poachers and trophy hunters, and all those who abuse domestic animals – I would make an exception.
However…. (you knew that ‘however’ was coming, didn’t you?), while revenge is sweet, it’s hard to keep under control, and Dian’s Ghost is set in Africa during the vast paroxysm of revenge called the Rwandan genocide. It swept the entire country, even the Virunga slopes where the mountain gorillas lived.
So, here we are, two women are falling in love, one devoted to caring for animals, the other heavy with the guilt of avenging them, in the midst of a gargantuan national turmoil. We have romance and we have action, not so much car chases, as “machete chases” that usually do not end well. And running for your life with gorillas through the mountain rain forest puts a real damper on hot sex.
Still, the story is not a tragedy, for it ends with hope. Both fictionally and historically, many good souls carry a bit of Dian’s ghost in them, and some will return (and have returned) to Rwanda to carry on the work. There are still cute baby gorillas to love.
As for the double murder by our heroine in Chapter One, well, you’ll have to find out for yourself how that is resolved.