Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com
Olga has been reading Untouched by Jayme Bean.
This is a debut novel, and based on the acknowledgments, it seems that despite the author’s initial reluctance to write a book, her enthusiasm for the Amazon rainforest, her contact with other writers, and her husband’s support encouraged her to embark on the project, and I am grateful for it. It is a great story, and I’ve enjoyed it enormously.
The plot is not too complicated, although this is a book where the devil is in the detail. What if the Amazon rainforest could defend itself against the intrusions and destruction it is suffering at the hands of the human being? What if the plants and the trees fought us back? The Day of the Triffids came to my mind, but let that not confuse you. That’s not what this is about. The beauty of the story is that the protagonists who end up fighting for their survival are not “baddies” in the classical sense, but quite the opposite. They are not there to destroy the forest but to research and learn about it, to try to preserve it. But, research and experiments, as we all know, are not always harmless, and the best of intentions can have terrible consequences. In that peculiar setting, we have the protagonists (Marisol and David are the research students, and they get separated from Dr. Morrow quite early in the book, although they become a trio again when they meet Ben, who’d gone missing before their arrival), and the novel is, in a way, something I’ve referred to before: a “coming of age”-style or “rite of passage” novel with a grown-up protagonist. Although the three: Marisol, David, and Ben are put to the test by what happens, David is the one that goes through a major change, and whose experiences get him further away from his comfort zone. In their own different styles, the three are geeks: studious, bookworms, and more focused on their research and learning than on their social lives, but David has always loved the indoors and seems totally unprepared for the expedition. Despite that, his contributions are very important to the resolution of the novel (although I won’t spoil the whole of the story for you), and he comes out of it a changed man.
If I had to choose a genre, I am not sure which one I would use to describe the story. It is an adventure story, a mystery (as two people go missing in the story, and later on there are other mysteries to try to solve, as the protagonists get lost in the rainforest and don’t know how to get out) that veers into horror at times, but also a story about learning who you are by confronting your fears, learning to work as part of a team, and to trust others. Along the way, we learn a lot about plants, biology, and the Amazon rainforest, about the organisation of a research expedition, about some Peruvian traditional beliefs, about panic attacks and its symptoms, and there is an interesting —if somewhat brief— conversation about bisexuality and how people react to it. There is a love story as well, and although I don’t think it will take anybody by surprise, it works well, and it adds further depth to the characters.
Although there are some other characters that contribute to the story (like the local guides, some of the other members of the research team), and I would have liked to get to know Dr. Morrow a bit better, the story centres on the three characters I’ve already mentioned. Marisol comes from Florida, her humble family is originally from Puerto Rico, her mother died when she was quite young, and she is very fond of her father, brothers (including a twin brother), and despite her scientific studies and knowledge can’t help but remember her grandmother’s teachings and religious beliefs, which make her worry about the guides’ refusal to go further into the forest, that they deem “tierra maldita” (“accursed land”). David, on the other hand, is from a very well-off family, but his parents have never been particularly close or even interested in him and his life, and he took refuge in his books and his studies. He never seemed to connect with anybody and has no true friends. He also suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, and although he has learned to manage those quite well, in most cases, it is not easy in his current circumstances. They make for a very odd couple, but, as you will probably image, they learn much about each other and about themselves in the process. Ben… We don’t get to know so much about him, as he is introduced later in the story, but he comes from a reasonably happy family, although he prefers to do his own thing and feels his parents try to over-control him; and he is independent to a fault, having learned how to live in the rainforest and become a true survivalist. The story also reminded me of a Young Adult or a New Adult story, because of its focus on characters (especially David) who are emotionally younger than their years, with the advantage that in this case, their ages (they are in their late twenties) make the whole novel more realistic, as we aren’t confronted with 17 years old who have the skills and knowledge that many experienced adults would be envious of, a common trope in some of these novels.
The story is told in the third person, although the point of view alternates between the different characters. In my opinion, David’s point of view dominates the story overall, but the author is excellent at introducing the experiences of the other characters as well, and although there is a fair amount of telling (because the characters —and us, of course— need to learn details about the project, the place, the plants, and the environment to make sense of what is happening), we often get to see and experience the full richness of the rainforest, the wonder and marvel of the sounds, the colours, the shapes, the feelings, the smells, and also the fear of being at the mercy of nature and not fully knowing what is coming next. The combination of the scientific knowledge titbits (that I found fascinating despite knowing very little about plants and even less about the rainforest), the fight for survival, and the strength and resilience of the characters, with the occasional touch of humour, reminded me of The Martian, and although the setting is completely different, I think there are some commonalities there. There are scenes of great tension interspersed with more contemplative moments, and the narrative eaves and flows, but although sometimes it might seem as if the characters are banging their heads against a wall (tree?) or spinning their wheels, I was hooked by the narrative and gripped by the story from very early on, and sad when it came to an end.
I highlighted much of the text and have found it too difficult to choose a few examples from the selection to share. There are witty dialogues, moving confessions, wonderful descriptions, scientific explanations, and awe-inspiring and scary passages as well. As usual, I’d advise prospective readers to check a sample of the novel, to see if the style of writing suits their taste.
I loved the ending, and although perhaps I would have liked to know more, it felt satisfying and right. I’ve mentioned the author’s acknowledgments, and I enjoyed reading about the process and what inspired her to write this book.
I recommend this book, that I had a great time with, to readers who enjoy adventure stories set in the wild, particularly those with an emphasis on ecology, biology, and the rainforest, happy to read about science and learn new things, and who also enjoy novels whose characters grow and learn from their experiences. There are beautifully descriptive passages that don’t overwhelm the story; there are plenty of adventures and scary moments for those who like to be gripped by a narrative; and also much to make us think. At the beginning of the novel, the author warns about the presence of episodes describing anxiety and panic attacks, and it is a fair warning, as the descriptions are very realistic and might cause upset to sufferers. There are also very mild scenes of M&M intimacy (I’d hesitate to call it erotica, and there is little explicit in them), but as I know what is somewhat subjective, I thought I’d mention it. There is no interpersonal violence in the book, but I’ve mentioned some scary scenes, and there are other kinds of violence and injuries present as well (that probably would be covered by the author’s warning about strong themes).
Dr. Julia Morrow and her graduate students, David and Marisol, embark on a research trip to explore a remote section of the Amazon rainforest. When their trails seem to change direction at will and they find themselves lost and without communication, the trio worry they may be in for more than just the latest scientific discovery. Banding together, they’re left deciding which is more important – finding out how to escape the unexpected horrors lurking within the rainforest or getting back home in one piece. The deeper they travel into the jungle, the more they realize that some places are meant to remain untouched.
Content Warning: This book contains strong depictions of panic and anxiety.
Thanks for sharing it, Rosie. Quite an unusual book that I really enjoyed. I’ll keep an eye on the author from now on.
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A lovely and thorough review, Olga. Have you read The Lost City of Z by David Grann?
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