The sun was ferociously hot, and he was still alive. Those were the first two thoughts that came to Fred as he opened his eyes. He looked down at his wristwatch, but the face was cracked and the minute hand had fallen off.
The two girls were asleep next to him. Both of them were covered in blood and scabs, but they were breathing easily. Con had her thumb in her mouth. There was a host of dragonflies in luminous blues and reds dancing around them. He thought they might be attracted to the blood.
But there was no sign of the little boy.
Max was missing.
(The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, P16 – 17.)
Fred is sensible. A nice boy. Everybody says so. Sometimes Fred wishes people would think of something more remarkable to say. Fred would love to do something impressive, something his father would take notice of. Then Fred is in a plane which crashes over the Amazon jungle. He survives alongside three other children: Lila, her little brother Max and fearless Con.
The jungle removes all the social conventions of the modernised world. Con and Lila may be dressed in frills, but Con won’t allow Fred to act the ‘fearless man’. Con finds she is equal to Fred, once society isn’t there to tell her otherwise.
The children find a map, which leads them to the ruined temple and the Explorer. The Explorer has lived in jungle for a long time, and adapted to jungle life. He is not keen to meet the children. Children are noisy, and under-grown. Children remind him of something he would rather forget.
The Explorer is an adult. In the ‘real world’ adults help children. The Explorer thinks differently. The jungle is as real as it gets, and he won’t help the children go anywhere until he is certain they will keep a promise. A promise Fred refuses to make.
Katherine Rundell is masterful in revelation. Her exposition is spot-on. Reading her work is like following a bread crumb trail: Rundell drops just enough bread crumbs to keep you hunting for more. The children are interesting characters, but the Explorer himself makes the story. I wanted to know why he was in the jungle. What is this man’s backstory? Will he help the children? The introduction of the Explorer a third of the way in opened a treasure-trove of questions.
The Explorer’s story opens ideas about the Western world imposing its values on other cultures. Rundell uses the metaphor of early explorers bringing pianos and tea cups into the jungle, trying to make the expedition ‘comfortable’ by bringing home comforts. She interrogates the values of the time, and the way people took opportunity of other cultures instead of embracing them. Fred’s narrative is closely tied to this. Initially, he hopes to return home to impress the world with his tales of the jungle.
Rundell makes clever use of imagery throughout the novel to investigate character conflict. I love the Explorer’s private space. He forbids the children to look behind the vines. It mirrors his hidden secrets, and his fear the children’s presence will bring his past into the open.
Rundell investigates the way different relationships shape us, from friendships to love and family bonds. One of my favourite lines is about love at first sight being a recognition that a person or place will make your heart stronger. Rundell is perceptive about interactions between people. She shows the affect one person can have on another.
There is some interesting exploration of gender. The jungle takes away the conventions of the modernised world. Con thrives. At the start she is cross and defensive, bunched up in a dress which she finds unnecessarily frilly. Once she is in the jungle, she never allows Fred to put himself above her. Fred must work alongside her as an equal. Lila goes unnoticed until Fred and Con fall out. Suddenly Lila – who cares for her little brother Max and an adopted sloth called Baca – speaks out. Quiet, nurturing, motherly Lila is more perceptive in this situation the Con or Fred.
The Explorer is perceptive about the way the Western World treats other cultures. Similar in theme to Kensuke’s Kingdom, it focuses on cultural landmarks as much as wildlife. The book looks set to be beautiful, with illustrations around the text by Hannah Horn. I look forward to holding it in my hands. I recommend reading in one or two sittings. This way, you won’t have to wait for an answer to the questions which build in your mind.
Huge thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me an advanced copy via NetGalley. This does not affect the honesty of my review.