The Selected Works of TS Spivet, By Reif Larsen

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

TS Spivet, the 12-year-old narrator of this bold and brilliant novel, is a prodigy. Living with his family on a ranch in Montana, he makes detailed scientific drawings that document his surroundings: insects' exoskeletons, the flight patterns of bats, the inscrutable expressions of adults. He sends them to the prestigious Smithsonian Institute, and, unaware of his age, they bestow on him an award for the popular advancement of science. He sneaks away from home, jumps on a freight train and heads to Washington DC to collect his prize.

TS is a charming creation, viewing the world with a mixture of mature scientific scepticism and childlike credulity. His journey recalls Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but in its formal inventiveness the novel takes its cue from another American classic: the epigraph is lifted from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, and Reif Larsen clearly aspires to the ambition and intellectual playfulness of that book. As TS departs from his narrative to embark on digressions into history and science, arrows divert the reader's eye from the main text to survey miniature stories in the margins, illustrated with exquisite diagrams.

These make for lovely adornments, but it's the quality of the prose that makes the book a true pleasure. Larsen's use of simile is inventive ("words orbit around them like the drunken circling of a late summer wasp") and often arresting, as when TS – in a Melvillean turn of phrase – describes the workings of his memory: "the image snagged upon the baleen of my recall".

It's not perfect. TS's family are an unconvincing medley of broad stereotypes – his father is a unreformed cowboy; his mother a sensitive entomologist; his sister a miserable teenager – and the narrative loses its momentum towards the end. But these are quibbles; Larsen's debut is a quirky treat that makes much modern fiction look colourless by comparison.