Books: Fiction in brief

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The Independent Culture
Ark Baby by Liz Jensen, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99. In her second novel, Liz Jensen takes her readers on a journey through time and space, travelling between 1845 and 2005, Tooting Bec and the north coast town of Thunder Spit, sometimes transported by Montgolfier balloon. The two characters we're invited to focus our sights on are Victorian would-be parson Tobias Phelps, and corrupt post-Millennial vet Bobby Saville, aka Buck de Savile. Jensen likes to generate suspense - what are the facts of foundling Tobias' conception? what part is leery Buck to play in our nation's future? - and then lead us on diversions into the lives of the extensive supporting cast. There's a fairground contortionist, a chef who experiments with braised rhino, and a stroppy royal taxidermist Dr Ivanhoe Scrapie, who develops a theory that would rival Darwin's, except the proof eludes him.

In her first novel, Egg Dancing, Jensen took a satirical look at genetic engineering. Ark Baby cocks a snook at history. The mix of fact and fantasy is assured, the whole underpinned with a sense of humour that takes the extraordinary for granted (a ghost is partial to Pepto Bismol) and gives small details far-reaching consequences (if only Queen Victoria hadn't commissioned a stuffed monkey for a towel-holder ...). The plot is complex, but the author's juggling is skilled.

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