Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5
Working with elephants in their natural habitat has always been Eric Phillips dream. Getting what he’s always desired introduces him to Tyaan Bouwer, the bush pilot that flies in his supplies, and Eric discovers the allure of South Africa goes beyond the wildlife and the scenery.
But in an area where bushveld prejudices and hatred bleed across the borders, realising their love will be a hard fought battle. Keeping hold of it might just kill them.
* * * * *
An unexpected job offer finds zoologist Eric Phillips transported from the elephant house at a zoo just outside London to the wildlife reserves in the South African bushveld. Being able to work with his own herd of elephants, and analysing their behaviour, more than makes up for the remote nature of the research station. The one bright spot on the horizon, quite literally if the sun hits it at the right angle, is the silver freight plane that brings his supplies and half an hour in the company of Tyaan, the gorgeous but taciturn pilot.
With wide open spaces and clear skies, Tyaan Bouwer is never be happier than when he’s flying over the bushveld, the landscape beneath him a changing vista of colour and texture. It’s that view and the freedom to be able to climb in his plane and fly that’s kept him in the small town where he was born and raised. South Africa might be a rainbow nation but in the northern regions where neighbouring countries are far from liberal minded, prejudices and hatred bleed across the borders. Tyaan’s not in the closet, not really. Get him to the city and with his strong, silent routine he can pull a guy without even trying. He’s fine with that as long as they don’t press him into trying to see them again. It’s not like he wants a relationship. And just maybe when he gets home he’s hovering in the doorway of that closet, but he’s never met anyone worth taking the risk for.
The day he’s sent to Limpopo to collect Eric that all changes. He tries to bury the feelings of want that Eric conjures in him, but he can’t resist the bonds of friendship that forms between them.
As a zoologist Eric likes to think that he’s adept at anticipating how a creature will react in any given situation, and they don’t come any more beautiful and skittish than Tyaan. Despite Tyaan’s jittery behaviour Eric has a theory they could be good together but when things go catastrophically wrong it appears their relationship will remain a theory unproven.
Theory Unproven by Lillian Francis was a book I enjoyed on multiple levels. It was the first novel I had read by this author and now I have a author with a new library to explore. Love when that happens. Secondly, as a park naturalist, this book with its location set in a elephant research sanctuary in Africa really resonated with me. With a zoologist, Eric Phillips, as one half of the main couple, I loved the realistic way his life and work with the elephants was portrayed. Dirty, all consuming, and soul satisfying…the readers understands through the many passages what it must be like to have that deep connection with another species. Whether Eric is combing through scat (that’s poop) or setting a series of problems for the elephants to work through, it all comes across beautifully and authentically. It also serves to make the reserve, and the elephants come alive, so much so that they become necessary to the main characters and the plot, and not just act as props for the storyline. And the elephants! They rank high among my favorite characters here. I have to admit this element of the story is the most successful for me.
For such a vast landscape in setting and plot, there is really only a small cast of characters involved here. Outside of Eric and Tyaan, we have a flying doctor, Jessie, Benedict Brooke’s (assistant to Mr. Cowdry, Mr. Cowdry CEO of The Foundation), all of which feel fleshed out and believable. Jessie is a cornerstone here. A strong woman, she is never the less the “beard” for Tyaan in town where his “gayness” is not only frowned on but poses a direct threat.Benedict and Mr. Cowdry’s personalities are developed through a series of telephone/Skype conversations that does a great job of making these men and their dysfunctional relationship intriguing and real. All good characters, all people the reader will want to spend time with.
What is problematic here? The native peoples themselves. Only marginally represented first by Akibo, a manager and Eric’s first contact at The Foundation, then by the cook/housekeeper Sethunya (a veritable wisp of a character) and the worker Masumba, you never really get a feel for the people, their tribes or their background. Their appearances are brief, and lacking in context. Their characters are pencil sketches at best, and,especially in Masumba’s case, that lack of background and solidity hurts both the story and resolution at the end.
Tyaan is a character that will draw conflicted feelings among the readers. I thought his was a character grounded in the reality of the changing times in South Africa where you can be legally out yet being gay can also get you hung or worse in neighboring countries and in the conservative bush lands where the local mentality is as rigid and inflexible as the past societies has made it. Fear and past history has made him limit his relationships to one night stands in the anonymous city landscape and it has kept him in the closet at home where he works and lives. Got it, you understand him even if you don’t like his actions, it makes him human.
But its that “realness” that will make Eric’s naivete less believable. Surely, Eric will have done more than a cursory research job when looking at the area and his outwardly gay status. Assuming he would have no problems being an “out gay” white man in the wilds of a reserve on a nation that just accepted being homosexual as legal, would be like thinking you could act in a small rural, conservative town in (fill in the blank area) like you would in New York City. Uh, no. And while I have known quite a few “been in the woods too long” researchers, few of them would display that set of blinders that looms so large on Eric.
But most of those thoughts came after I had finished the story and had time to think about it. While I was reading it, I was hooked on the elephants, Eric and Tyaan’s attraction for each other and strained journey towards a relationship. This is a long book yet most of the time I spent reading it flew by. And I could easily book a flight back to this universe. I would love to know more about Mr. Cowdry and Benedict’s convoluted relationship and surely there are more bumps on the relationship road for Tyaan and Eric. A return trip would be more than welcome.
I vacillated on the rating here. I wanted to go higher for the location, setting, elephants and research. And lower for the context and native characters. So I settled for a 4 star rating which I’m not entirely happy with…because this story is so lush, so vibrant in feeling and scope that I am still so very much in love with Theory Unproven weeks later.
I recommend this story for all who love romance, foreign lands and a landscape of adventure where the search for love can be rough, affectionate, and hard won. Pick it up today and decide for yourself.
Cover art by Meredith Russell. I feel the same way about the cover that I do about the story. Love/dislike the cover. The models work/don’t work for the characters within. See? Just not sure. Love the background though.
ebook, 327 pages
Published February 20th 2015 by Love Lane Books
Limited (first published January 30th 2015)