Books: The unnatural selector

Francis Spufford enjoys a glimpse of the world that evolution killed
Mr Darwin's Shooter

by Roger McDonald

Anchor, pounds 9.99, 413pp

ONE OF the best books of literary criticism of the last 20 years, Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots, explored the take-up of evolutionary ideas in the Victorian novel. The notion of chance as a branching tree instead of a linear progress; a new sense of the interdependence of organism and environment; the impersonal pattern that might underlie society's customs: Darwinism was a fount of new stories, not just the theory that destroyed Genesis. The discursiveness of 19th-century fiction made for a rewarding fit with the new biology's networks of kinship. Ever since, there has been a kinship between evolutionary theory and the "novel of ideas".

But Darwinism has never lost its power to destabilise. You don't have to believe God created the world in six days to assume that the span of a human life is the natural focus of the cosmos, and that certainty still capsizes at the reminder that human behaviour is just animal behaviour in a world indifferent to individual life. So there has always been fiction using Darwin for satire or reproach, continuing to the present with Will Self's Great Apes or Jenny Diski's Monkey's Uncle.

The surprise of is that it doesn't have a Darwinian plot of either kind. As an index of the priority science has in it, there is an accurate phrenological reading of its protagonist, the sailor Syms Covington, Darwin's assistant on HMS Beagle. From Covington's bumps "a doglike fondness was no surprise; powers of concentration and challenge; a streak of resentment; helpfulness; secretiveness..." McDonald has written a novel of character just as dogged and warm. It's Covington's life that sets the tempo here.

Covington is an obscure figure, but his later incarnation as a man of property in New South Wales, and Darwin's own hints at a complexity he would rather not plumb, have given McDonald scope for a sustained piece of imagining. The truism says that no man is a hero to his valet. McDonald is more interested in what the valet gets from the scientific legend.

Covington's fault as a servant is that he wants to be recognised. He is devoted, but won't settle down into the persona of "Trusted Cobby". We meet him first as the irascible old ox of a landowner in Australia, tired of patronage. He tries to redeem his failure with "CD" by replaying the relationship (to a young doctor in the colony) as a friendship. Gradually, as frivolous Dr McCracken begins to guess at the history behind the overtures made to him, the young Covington emerges: the red-haired bullock of a boy, "as smart as a carrot new-scraped", eager to admire the gent in the cabin next to Captain Fitzroy's.

The scenes of discomfort on both sides are beautifully observed. McDonald is richly alert to the irony of Covington's animal spirits, compared to the biologist's fleshly inhibition. If there's a criticism of the book, it's that the collective chip on the Aussie literary shoulder manifests itself here in the treatment of the gentry as distant, stunted aliens.

The author may not be pursuing the drama of ideas, but the idea of natural selection has one terribly destructive consequence. The overturn of the creation story destroys Covington's faith. We believe in his vulnerable belief because we witness the ecstatic vision of the world McDonald gives him. He comes from an England as luminous as a stained-glass window, where ragged boys chant the catechism as they march along the field paths. This is a lavish, rich, novel in an idiosyncratic countryman's voice, thickened with metaphor. In this Eden, Darwin plants "the seed of dismay". The novel ends as a sympathetic lament for the world we have lost, thanks to 19th- century biology.