Book review: The Riverbones, by Andrew Westoll
in The Big Issue on 28 July 2009
After finishing university, Andrew Westoll studied monkeys in Suriname. Five years later, he returned to the tiny South American nation – this time as a writer.
In The Riverbones, the young Canadian careens from one disturbing encounter to the next, boozing his way through jungles and seedy towns on a search for personal meaning and cultural understanding. While he’s at it, he illuminates the country’s brutal colonial exploitation, as well as its ongoing crises in health, governance and environmental management.
In the book’s defining quest, Westoll seeks a glimpse of okopipi, an endangered electric-blue frog. The Suriname government, attempting to protect the frog’s fragile habitat from tourism, denies him a travel permit.
But he doesn’t give up. At best, he’s pursuing a romantic folly; at worst, he’s just another moneyed westerner extracting his bounty from the jungle (much like the multinational mining corporations he criticises).
Even still, Westoll is a rollicking storyteller who knows his subject back to front. The Riverbones is an unsettling evocation of all that’s rotting and thriving in Suriname, and it resonates far beyond the rainforest.