Ebola: a review

A month ago, some anonymous donor left Ebola on my front porch. The book, not the virus. Seeing as how Ebola (the virus, not the book) fascinates and terrifies me, I couldn't avoid reading it.

Ebola, by William T. Close, M.D., is a moderately dramatized account of the first outbreak of the Ebola virus in Zaire in 1976. The book's cover and introduction make it a point to inform you that Dr. Close was there to witness the outbreak firsthand and "worked desperately to contain the first outbreak of the virus", but the book is written in the third person and Dr. Close never makes an appearance. It's clear that he changed the names of the other people involved, but why change his own name in a book he's writing? Strange.

Also somewhat strange is the fact that the word "Ebola" never appears in the main narrative. This is understandable given the book's focus on the characters rather than on the virus, but since the book's title is Ebola, I was expecting a little more information on the virus itself. Close's choice to focus on the characters rather than the virus is at times a good thing and at times perplexing.

The story begins slowly, establishing the look and feel of the village of Yambuku, its people, and the Flemish nuns running the mission there. As the first victims of the virus begin to appear, the foreshadowing gets a little ham-fisted. It almost feels like Close is intentionally portraying the nuns as unconcerned and even careless merely for the sake of adding to the suspense.

After the first hundred pages or so, things finally start to pick up and the really interesting stuff begins. The dedication of the nuns in caring for the victims under some of the harshest conditions imaginable, even as they themselves begin to contract the virus, is touching, and it's what makes the book worth reading.

Unfortunately, while the middle of the book is gripping and generally well written, the last third goes completely off track. When two doctors from the WHO finally arrive at Yambuku, the virus has already killed hundreds of villagers and is beginning to burn itself out. Without the constant influx of Ebola victims, the author seems to lose his bearing, and the story inexplicably shifts its focus to a schoolboy crush one of the doctors (who is married) has developed on one of the nuns. It's so awkward it's almost creepy at parts. After this confusing twist is resolved, the book just keeps on going for no discernable reason, following the nun as she flees Yambuku when it seems like the virus might reappear. Nothing interesting happens to the nun, the virus doesn't return, and the book just ends, having strung you along for the last hundred pages or so for no real reason.

There's another creepy thing about this book, and that's the author's apparent fascination with breasts. He describes them at every possible opportunity, often in unnecessary detail. The reader is kept constantly aware of the statuses of the breasts of nearly every female character, villagers and nuns alike. At one point we're even forced to read a description of the teats of one of the village's mangy dogs. I like breasts as much as the next man, but Close seems to think (and write) about them far more than is warranted, especially for a story primarily about Flemish nuns.

On the whole, while I wasn't crazy about it, the book did tell a compelling story. I think a better author could have made it even more compelling, but since Dr. Close was apparently there, he'll have to do. However, if you're looking for technical descriptions of Ebola, its effects, and its treatment, look somewhere else. This is a book about villagers and nuns and how they dealt with an outbreak; it's not a book about Ebola.