Book Reviews

Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart by Tim Butcher

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List Price: £7.99


Kindle Edition: 363 Pages.

Published: 15 December 2010 by Vintage Digital



When Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher was sent to cover Africa in 2000 he quickly became obsessed with the idea of recreating H.M. Stanley's famous expedition - but travelling alone.

Despite warnings that his plan was 'suicidal', Butcher set out for the Congo's eastern border with just a rucksack and a few thousand dollars hidden in his boots. Making his way in an assortment of vessels including a motorbike and a dugout canoe, helped along by a cast of characters from UN aid workers to a campaigning pygmy, he followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian adventurers.

Butcher's journey was a remarkable feat, but the story of the Congo, told expertly and vividly in this book, is more remarkable still.


2.0 Stars2.0 Stars  by Anne

Not entirely sure why the author made this trip

Tim Butcher attempts to retrace Stanley's exploration trip down the Congo river. He uses this opportunity to inform the reader about what conditions are like in Congo today (or about 10 years ago when he made the trip).

The author's first issue was getting permission to be in Congo at all. "Pleasure" trips such as these are discouraged and the country is a war zone. He spends some considerable time getting permission and continually reports back that people are amazed that he wants to visit this country just to retrace the steps of a Victorian explorer - it doesn't seem like a good enough reason. Actually, I agree with the officials concerned. I never really understood why Butcher needed to make this trip at all. It seemed like a publicity exercise - a trip designed to be written about afterwards and to make money for the writer. That seems very egotistical but I cannot really come to any other conclusion after all the effort that he makes to get into the country in the first place.

Having got permission to make the trip the author doesn't seem to be quite sure how he will do it. He goes from one place to another with very sketchy ideas about who may be able to take him on the next leg of his journey. He is depending very much on the goodwill of other people and there are a couple of occasions where he seems potentially to put someone's life in danger because of his desire. Most of the time he is not helped by people for whom the Congo is their home - mostly it is UN and other aid workers. This means that on his journey he can tell the reader a lot about what the landscape is like, a lot about his own privations and something about the history of the country but very little about how ordinary people live - to be fair, I am not sure that this was a purpose of the book but it does leave a noticeable gap.

The history element is interesting - although you could have got that somewhere else without the journey. Some of his "facts" about Stanley are different from those contained in Tim Jeal's excellent biography of the traveller which must have been published after this book. If you want a history of the area and early exploration then that might be a better book to read.

My overwhelming impression of this book is that the author made the journey so that he could say that he has done it and write and lecture after the event to make some money. I got some understanding of the history of the country but little about how ordinary people lived because he didn't interact much with them - in fact, he does a large chunk of the trip by helicopter. Because I didn't have a lot of sympathy with the author (or even like him very much judged by what he reveals of himself in this book) I was left with a feeling of "so what ?" by the end of the narrative.

I published this review on another site recently and was surprised to receive an e-mail from the author. He makes it clear that the trip was not designed as a money-grabbing opportunity but was a real attempt to retrace an epic journey. He also agreed that his version of the life of Stanley does not agree with that of Tim Jeal and pointed out that readers need to make up their mind which to believe. I'm not going to change my review because what I have written above is genuinely what I felt after I had read the book and the impression that the book gave me.

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