Back Bay Books, November 200
Originally published Little, Brown and Company, 1935
New York, NY
Until two weeks ago I was ignorant to the fact that The African Queen was a novel first and then a film. But my ignorance was put to an end when I stumbled upon the novel by C. S. Forester (famous for his Horatio Hornblower series) while browsing the F-G aisle of a nearby city library branch. It only took a glance before I knew I had to read the book.
As World War I reaches the heart of the African jungle, Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer, a disheveled trader and an English spinster missionary, find themselves thrown together by circumstances. Fighting time, heat, malaria, and bullets, they make their escape on the rickety steamboat The African Queen... and hatch their own outrageous military plan. (Summary courtesy of the Publisher)
I admit I began reading this book with a few preconceived notions about the story. These notions were based on the 1951 movie (starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn), which I saw several years ago while visiting my grandparents. Even though I don't remember much about the movie I do recall that it was one of the few Humphrey Bogart movies I liked and I thought it was a romantic story. Readers be warned, one should never have preconceived notions about a novel based solely on the film adaptation. Even I knew this, but ignored it.
As a story-teller, Forester is definitely a master. The plot is fast-paced and tight, without bogging down over side plots or character back story. The prose is beautiful and includes vivid descriptions that make it easy for the reader to visualize Rose, Allnutt, the steamboat African Queen, and the African jungle and river with all its wild beauty and dangers.
As an action-packed adventure-love story, The African Queen does not fail the reader entirely. From the first chapter I was pulled into the story. It is exciting, interesting, suspenseful, and in the end unpredictable. But, for me, it was not entirely satisfactory.
Why wasn't it satisfactory? For starters, I never fully connected with the romance factor of this story. In the film version I watched as Allnutt's and Rose's feelings for each other first bud into camaraderie and friendship and then later blossom into love as they work together to overcome the many obstacles en route to their ultimate mission. But in the book I found their relationship more of a thrown-together solution for their loneliness and fear. I just didn't get the impression that their relationship was made from true love and respect for the other. It just didn't seem that it would really last the test of time.
The other disappointing aspect of the book was the ending, which I found to be very anti-climatic. Without giving anything away I will say this much -- the plot of The African Queen revolves around the hero and heroine achieving a goal, but in the end nothing goes according to plan and the reader, along with Rose and Allnutt, is left with an uncertainty of the future, which the author fails to relieve in his closing sentence, "Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided..."
Note Content Warning: Due to movie censorship common in the 1950s the movie is clean of any language or love scenes. But readers should know novels (even those published in the 1930s) were not under the same restrictions. The African Queen novel contains some language (mostly using the Lord's name in vain) and a couple references to premarital sex, but no detail.
Overall I would say I liked The African Queen "Ok." For the first part of the novel I liked the story, it was an interesting read, but in the end I was left unsatisfied. On a scale of 1-5, 1 being horrible and 5 being excellent I would rate The African Queen a 2.5. I really liked the writing, if only the novel had ended differently it might have earned a higher rating.
Other readers may feel differently, but personally I still prefer the film adaptation (alterations from the novel and all). For those curious I've included a clip of the 1951 Theatre Trailer for the movie.