Andrew Westoll's The Jungle South of the Mountain inspired by scientist's experience with capuchin monkeys

The Jungle South of the Mountain follows Stanley, a scientist who has been living for years immersed in a rain forest on the northern coast of South America.

Author Andrew Westoll alongside his new book.


Author Andrew Westoll alongside his new book.

It’s been more than a decade since Andrew Westoll has spent time in the rainforest amongst the capuchin monkeys, but the sounds and sights, and the emotions they conjure in the former primatologist have never completely vanished.

Now, they’re at the heart of his first novel, The Jungle South of the Mountain, a psychological mystery mixed with magical realism set deep in an unnamed South American country. 

“I had my own experiences in the upper Amazon basin, years and years ago,” Westoll says. “They just felt like they totally hadn’t been put through the sieve.”

Westoll, who left science to focus on writing, made a name for himself with his travel memoir The Riverbones, which captures his time in the Suriname jungle, and the award-winning The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, a biography of a group of rescued chimpanzees living in Quebec.

But he started his career writing fiction while working on his creative-writing MFA at the University of British Columbia. Like many authors, Westoll has an early “drawer novel” tucked away, but despite his success with non-fiction had always wanted to return to the genre.

The Jungle South of the Mountain follows Stanley, a scientist who has been living for years immersed in a rain forest on the northern coast of South America.

While in mourning after the loss of his son, and the departure of his fellow scientist and wife, Maria, Stanley finds himself embroiled in local politics and the mysterious disappearance of the troop of monkeys they’ve been tracking. 

Stanley came to Westoll one night while wondering what would happen to a scientist who stayed in the jungle too long.

“Once I had that idea, I realized this could be a really amazing way to put my relationship to that part of my life to bed,” he says.

He knew Stanley needed some kind of adversary, and so to refresh his memory, the next  morning he began looking up videos of capuchin monkeys.

He came across one shaky video taken immediately after a troop of monkeys was attacked by a powerful harpy eagle.

Westoll heard a man’s voice exclaim in horror, and realized it was his own. He had totally forgotten shooting the video, and hadn’t realized it had been posted online.
“When I heard my voice, it all came rushing back, the power of that moment,” he says.
“It’s profoundly upsetting when you spend all this time with the monkeys and you’ve named half of them. You see them come under attack like that and it’s troubling. I just knew that what’s what was going to happen.”

Although The Jungle South of the Mountain is far from being autobiographical, Westoll did draw on the internal conflict between rationalism and spiritual faith he’s experienced in his own career.

“When I left science, I left because I believed more strongly in the larger truths that literature provides,” he says.

“It’s not that I don’t believe the truths of science, I just didn’t want to spend my life obsessing over data. I wanted to go in a different direction and use storytelling as a way of understanding the world around me.”

Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine.

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