Wednesday, April 7, 2010

*The African Queen, by C.S. Forester

ISBN: 0316289108
Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company
Original publication date: 1935

If you do a quick scan through reviews for this book, quite a number of them read something like this:

...this is one case where the movie was better.
...I should have just stuck with the movie and not bothered with the book
...The book pales in comparison with the movie
...and so on

That's all fine and well. Yes, the movie is excellent. Yes, books brought to life are often much more interesting than the original work itself. But can't books just be reviewed on their own, without having to compare them to their cinematic counterparts? Or is that impossible nowadays? -sigh- Oh well. It is what it is, right?  For now, let's move along.

It's 1914 and the German Army is attempting to claim central Africa. Its local leader has come to a small  mission station on the Ulanga River in what was at that time known as the Belgian Congo, and has taken away the converts, food, materials, anything the Army might need to succeed. The stress of it all has killed British missionary Samuel Sayer, leaving his spinster sister Rose on her own. Luckily, she manages to convince Charlie Allnut, the cockney-speaking skipper of the African Queen, to take her on as a passenger. Her grand plan is to take this rambling wreck of a boat downriver to where the German ship Königin Luise sits, and use the explosives Charlie has stored to make the African Queen one giant floating torpedo and blow it up. In her mind, she'll kill two birds with one stone: she'll get revenge for Samuel's death and they'll be doing "their bit" for England. So off they go on their journey -- and along the way they come to learn exactly what stuff they're made of. 

The African Queen is really more character driven than plot driven, focusing on Charlie and Rose, but mostly on Rose. Brought up in England, now in her 30s, Rose first lived under the thumb of her father and of English society, then traded that for life with her proper missionary brother. But once all of the restraints placed upon her have disappeared, and have no meaning out there in the middle of the jungle, Rose begins to really live for the first time. Many people who have commented on this novel find her newly-found freedom from such deeply-instilled mores a bit unrealistic, and perhaps her behavior on the African Queen is a bit out of character for someone so repressed, but Rose behaving badly works here. And why not? Her plan all along was to go down with the African Queen when it blows up the the Königin Luise, so really, what has she got to lose?  But life, like the Ulanga River, takes some interesting twists and turns, creates obstacles to be overcome, circles back, and catches Rose and Charlie in its flow.

This book was written in 1935, so modern readers may find it slow going. However, if it is at all possible to read the book and not think of the movie, and to get under the surface here, there's a lot to like about it. 

--Next up: The Quiet American, by Graham Greene


  1. I like reading a book and deciding for myself and try not to project an opinion based on a movie. In general, I prefer the older books rather than contemporary ones and this sounds like a fine read to me. I'm re-discovering books I meant to read long ago and haven't for one reason or another. Thanks for another good and thoughtful review.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I wonder if you and I are a dying breed? LOL

  3. I am so silly, do you know what? I didn't even realize that Forrester wrote this! I am a classic movie fan and this is one of the few that I can't stand. I know, that makes me weird, but in this case, I don't think that I could stomach the book. Usually, I can separate the book from movie. That might be asking too much with this one.

  4. You're not weird. Lots of people didn't even know there was a book. LOL

    What's your favorite classic film?

  5. i have just read this for our reading group. i have never seen the film so had no preconceived notions of it - i wouldn`t have read it on my own volition because it seems a blokey sort of book! however , i enjoyed it . i thought it was a "ripping yarn" type of adventure story, and although it mainly features two humans of the opposite sexes, and you might therefore hope it`d be romantic it was more gritty than that. in fact i think the title is more accurate -it is not called "Romance on the African Queen" ! There is so much description of the actual vessel itself that i think it is the third character . boats are given names and spoken of by sailors as if they have personalities of their own . A large number of words are devoted to dealing with the boat , mending it, feeding it with fuel, taking care not to damage it ,lots of technical stuff for the practically minded, especially sailing/engineering types. I am a land-lubber my self and going on the pond in the local park is about as far as i would venture , but i found this very educational - the boat terminology in particular struck me - i think it was a good idea to get to grips with it, or parts of the story would have been difficult to understand, or boring . i think the characters were described very much from an outside point of view , so that i didn`t identify too much with them ; thus the way it ended did not disappoint me at all - i was rather glad in fact that they didn`t actually do the deed they set out to do - they were left , as they had began, as rather innocent little people , and i am sure they did live happily ever after - or as happily as most people in real life do ! shame the boat sank !

  6. You're so right about the boat itself as the third main character.

    and the African Queen (what's left of it) is still around in Key Largo, FL!


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.