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Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Maxwell cleverly weaves her tale

JANE – The woman who loved Tarzan
by Robin Maxwell

This book’s release, authorised by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, coincided with the centenary of the publication of Tarzan of the Apes. It’s a fitting re-invention.
            Many years ago, I read and re-read all two dozen of the Tarzan books and also the John Carter series. Like fans worldwide, I’ve always felt that the films never did Lord Greystoke justice. So, it was with a little trepidation that I tackled this book.
            What many film-makers neglected but this novel recognizes, ‘There is no Tarzan without Jane’, to quote John R Burroughs. As I became immersed in the tale, all fears for the treatment of the lord of the jungle evaporated. It was obvious that this was a work of love and respect for the original, a worthy homage.
            The book begins in 1912 Chicago where Jane Porter is giving a talk about the missing link she found in Africa. Her claims cause heated controversy among several academic and scientific attendees and, ultimately, a Mr E.R. Burroughs, a young author, takes her aside and expresses an interest in her tale about an ape man. Sequestered together, Jane tells all to Burroughs. This is Jane’s first person narrative we’re about to read, beginning in 1905.
            Maxwell cleverly weaves her tale, using the basic elements of the original but grafting on much that is new and intriguing. Seeing this tale from Jane’s perspective works exceedingly well for me. The period and character are beautifully captured – perhaps I should have expected nothing less from an accredited author of historical fiction.
            There is much that is familiar – the story of Tarzan’s origin, though shifted by date for purposes of realism, the Waziri, d’Arnot, Jane’s father, and the Mangani. The vain and dashing explorer Ral Conrath makes a suitable bad guy, but the real villain is Kerchak, the killer ape. Yet they’re given slight twists to fit this retelling; to stick to the original in every respect would have been a creative straitjacket and unworthy, and fortunately both Jim Sullos, custodian of the legend, and grandson John R Burroughs agreed. In his works, Burroughs did a lot of research for his books, and Maxwell has emulated him with a sure touch, delving into the paleo-anthropological details, the descriptions of the Dark Continent and even the history of Cambridge University, yet at no times imposing swathes of mind-numbing information on the reader.
            There are several poignant moments – not least the reading of Alice’s diary, the vaguely recalled past of young Tarzan and the erotic yet tasteful relationship between the ape man and his mate, Jane.
            You don’t have to have read any Tarzan book to appreciate this wonderful novel. If you have read some of the ape man’s adventures, then you’ll find much to please you in this retelling, bringing the lord of the jungle back to an adult readership, Burroughs’ intended audience.

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