When the Killing's Done, By T C Boyle

Rats, a sinking ship, and an eco puzzler

Anacapa Island is a rocky outcrop, one of California's Channel Islands, just five miles long and half a mile wide, lying 14 miles off America's west coast, slightly to the north of Los Angeles.

And it is here, in 1946, that Beverly Boyd finds herself washed up at the beginning of T C Boyle's novel, which takes a hatchet to the incongruities of environmental idealism.

Boyle's description of the storm that leaves Beverly shipwrecked, widowed and clinging for life to an ice-chest, is as monumental as the "black volcanoes of water" that engulf her boat, and it took this reader almost as long to calm down as it did her, surrounded as she is by her new home's jagged rocks and daunting cliffs – not to mention the teeming wildlife, "the shapes manifesting themselves all at once – furred, quick-footed, tails naked and indolently switching, a host of darkly shining eyes fastening on her".

These rats are not indigenous: they, too, came to Anacapa courtesy of a wreck, in the 19th century, and have since become pervasive, killing off the local wildlife. It is for this reason that, more than half a century after Beverly's near-death experience, Alma Boyd Takesue, her granddaughter and a biologist with the National Parks Service, is heading a mission to exterminate the creatures with poison pellets and restore the island's eco-system (a plan based on a real event that took place in 2001).

Standing in her way is Dave LaJoy, an animal-rights campaigner whose admirable opposition to the killing of any creature is in contrast to his boorish behaviour towards his fellow man. He organises pickets outside Takesue's office and does his best to sabotage her programme of extermination – eventually with tragic consequences.

But this is no straight good-and-bad dichotomy. Takesue is painted as an unnecessarily stiff woman, who deliberately blinds herself to the fact that, once she has killed off the rats – and then the feral pigs on Anacapa's neighbouring islet, Santa Cruz – there will always be another species that will need to be "taken care of".

Boyle's writing is deliciously lyrical, whether his characters are in a reflective or parlous state; his history of the islands is intricately researched and never less than absorbing; and his message is as dark as his humorous style will allow: whether through LaJoy's interference or Takesue's inevitable response, it is clear that, as long as humans are involved, no matter how much they may claim to love animals, no one wins – least of all Nature.

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