Title: Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure
Author: Julian Smith
Acquired: From the publisher for review.
Review: In 1898 British adventurer Ewart Grogan fell in love, but was deemed unworthy by his sweetheart’s aristocratic family. To prove his worth, he set off on a quest to be the first man to cross the entire length of the unexplored African continent. About a century later, journalist Julian Smith came across Grogan’s story and found some kinship with the errant explorer. Although Smith was madly in love with his girlfriend of seven years, he was afraid of committing to her. In order to face his fears, Smith decided to retrace Grogan’s path and explore the heart of Africa.
If the summary makes the premise of the memoir sound like a bit of a stretch, you’d be right. I too was little skeptical if the two narratives would work together or if it would feel forced — there’s nothing worse than a memoir that feels more like a gimmick than an emotionally satisfying story.
What ended up making the dual narratives work for me is the fact that both Grogan and Smith are people I wanted to read more about. Grogan, the prototypical adventurer, seems both fearless and flawed. His trek through Africa is full of the exact sort of things you’d expect from an adventure narrative — terrifying animals, punishing weather, and the familiar British imperial racism (not a good thing, just typical of the genre). And throughout, Grogan maintains his dedication to the woman he left behind, a romance that is admirable and strange.
Similarly, I liked the way Smith chose to write about himself. Memoirists get to portray themselves as they choose, and in this case I think Smith did a good job balancing out his sympathetic qualities with the head-slapping moments in his relationship with his girlfriend, Laura. Smith does not always make the right choice — often making the exact wrong one — and his flaws make him easier to relate to. I liked Smith the narrator, and that helps the book a lot.
But the book does suffer a bit by the stretched premise. Smith’s love story is never quite as fleshed out as I wanted it to be — sometimes I could not figure out why Laura would have decided to stay with Smith at all! And the adventure narrative just isn’t quite as good as other adventure narratives about British explorers (The Lost City of Z by David Grann comes to mind for me).
Still, while there are better exploration tales and there are better memoirs about reformed commitmentaphobes, Crossing the Heart of Africa admirably tackles both genres and should appeal to readers that appreciate a little romance with their adventure.
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