I love a strong heroine. Zora de Rycken, in R. Barber Anderson’s debut novel The Sunken Forest, is a total bad-ass. A linguist who speaks multiple languages, trained in self-defense and survival techniques by Special Forces while working as their translator, and expert guide and tracker, she is fearless, fast, strong, and comfortable surviving in the African jungle—which comes in handy when she accompanies Carver on a search and rescue mission to the Congo to find his colleague Hoyt, who disappeared with seven others while exploring a mysterious depression in the rainforest. As The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larrson, two competing groups head to a little-known “caldera” deep in the rainforest of the Congo Basin that the local bisi ndima, or forest people, call the “forbidden place”—Zora to help timber-company employee Carver, and Oleg, a Russian billionaire, to hunt the zabolo yindo, a mythical black lion reported to live there—but both also hoping to establish timber rights to the gigantic trees that Hoyt was scouting. Anderson will read from and sign his book at Over the Moon Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Saturday, February 8.
But Zora only uses her prodigious talents to protect other people and the rainforest she cherishes. Although tough, she is also gentle and empathetic, caring for the pygmy Ngiome—leader of the extended pygmy family, or bisi ndima, that Oleg kidnaps to force him to lead them to the black lion—befriending a troop of chimpanzees, and hesitating to take revenge on the Russians for their sadistic treatment of her. An Author’s Note explains that the word “pygmy” is used by the scientific community as a generic term for various indigenous African groups. Zora, who refuses to use a gun throughout the book, also embodies an anti-gun message.
The Russian group is composed of Oleg, a ruthless and narcissistic big game hunter whose only goal is to subjugate nature as well as other people to serve his needs; Viper, a crass, sadistic psychopath; and Aziza, a vicious enabler of their vicious schemes. Not realizing that Zora understands Russian, Viper repeatedly says misogynistic, homophobic, racist, and threatening things about her and Carver, which he thinks she can’t understand. While these characters are fully developed, they sometimes fall into stereotypes—Viper is a caricature villain—which allows the book’s conflicts to verge on the black and white. A few other unrealistic aspects do not mar our overall enjoyment of the book.
The two groups have competing world views: Zora, Carver, and Ngiome view the rainforest as sacred. Ngiome tells his tribe’s origin story about the “first forest” from which his people were banished for not sharing its resources. Now they live a few miles from the caldera’s rim and strive to protect it. “We sing to the forest and the forest sings back to us and we are all one,” he explains. “We are the forest—the forest is the bisi ndima.” Like Powers’ The Overstory, this book also celebrates ancient, giant trees and is packed with rainforest lore and detailed information on its flora and fauna. “The forest was very old here, and the trees were enormous, with trunks reaching upward like sentient giants to support a continuous canopy of interlacing green foliage.” All the characters share wonder and astonishment when they arrive in the magical, mystical understory of the caldera. Carver climbs a 327’ tree that is 31 feet in diameter with a circumference of 96 feet—a new species that resembles a eucalyptus—where Zora and Carver spend the night. They name it Centurion, just as Maidenhair and Watchman in The Overstory name their giant redwood home Mimas. The Russian group, by contrast, is gun-happy, toting AK-47s everywhere they go with the goal of killing and conquering all forest life and using them to shoot a snake, a pangolin, and a baby chimpanzee, among others.
Sunken Forest is a combination mystery, thriller, and horror story, with an underlying environmental admonition. Suspense mounts as the two parties travel together to and into the deep caldera, where the previous party of eight was devoured by predators. Not if, but when will Oleg and Viper try to eliminate Zora and Carver? What begins as a jungle adventure turns into a horror story with a heavy dose of pornographic violence, as well as a struggle for survival by both the characters and the forest itself. The characters face a double threat: insane sadists Oleg and Viper, who both have vicious designs on Zora and plan to use Carver as lion bait, and the black lion(s) itself, which killed Hoyt’s entire party. In this gripping ecological thriller, respect for Nature ultimately triumphs over corporate greed—at least for now. A significant number of Zora and Oleg’s original group of eleven do not make it, destroyed by the rainforest itself—giant thorns, forest elephants, angry chimpanzees, crocodiles, big cats—and, of course, each other. Zora allies herself with the pygmies and the rainforest in a valiant effort to save it from the threat of exploitation. “This is no longer just some unexplored region in the middle of nowhere,” she tells her companions. “This is a totally unique site…. No one should ever be allowed to cut any of the trees in this place, and whatever those felines turn out to be, no one should ever be permitted to hunt them. It’s a treasure—a treasure that no one has the right to take or destroy.”
R. Barber Anderson is a local author, artist, architect, and former Crozet resident. He has written and illustrated several children’s books about the rainforest, including Obo, When I Was a Boy I Was a Black Panther, and the Little Rhino series of coloring books about Africa and Costa Rica. He maintains an artist’s studio at McGuffey Art Center in Charlottesville.
In 2019, The Sunken Forest received a first-place award in the Global Thriller category from Chanticleer International Book Awards. Anderson is currently working on the sequel, Jumeau (French for Twin). Sunken Forest is available online and in local bookstores.