What a difference a gene makes

MENDEL'S DWARF by Simon Mawer Doubleday pounds 15.99

There is a phrase at the back of my mind that describes this book, but which is a bit crass. It's a new cliche, a metaphor for any novel that uses wit and an involving storyline to introduce us to a world we might have found off-putting. Maybe I'll use it anyway, at the end - but in the meantime, fancy trying to guess what it is? This will provide ideal practice for anyone who intends to read Mendel's Dwarf, because this dark, funny, bitter, cute little novel is pock-marked with rhetorical questions and games between the narrator and his audience.

Its caustic commentator is the dwarf (yes, a real one) of the title, Dr Benedict Lambert, a man who should understand jokes, because nature has played a great one on him. Dr Lambert is the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, the Morovian monk and amateur scientist who discovered the principles on which modern genetics is based. He did this, you may know, by growing tens of thousands of pea plants in the monastery garden, cross-fertilising them and observing the results. Mawer shows us something of Mendel's difficult, lonely struggle for recognition - and how he augmented his research by recording the lineage of an extended family of circus dwarfs.

Mendel died in 1884, his work ignored. It was rediscovered at the turn of the century, and provided a basis for the pseudo-science of eugenics - "altering a population by controlled breeding for desirable inherited characteristics". Get the mix right, the Nazis thought, and you could bake a master race free of impurities like Jews, gypsies, gays ... and dwarfs. Boom-boom.

You can guess that this tale is told with the blackest, driest humour, and with irony by the bargain bucket. Mendel was the son of a serf who educated himself as a means of escape. Lambert, his descendant, does the same, escaping from his physical limitations (girls are not interested and a careers officer suggests the circus) by studying genetics because, as his well-meaning family says, "at least he's got a brain in his head". He becomes a great scientist - "a Billy Smart of genetics, a Barnum & Bailey of the genome" - in pursuit of the gene that causes achondroplasia, or dwarfism, and pulls no punches on the way. Addressing a conference of fellow geneticists, each able-bodied and feeling "the guilt of the survivor", he reminds them of the freak shows once held in the town nearby. "You, ladies and gentlemen, would have gone to stare. At people like me."

That means us too. This book will make you feel uncomfortable, because Benedict Lambert is a complicated human being who provokes sympathy but laughs in its face. He is ferociously witty, systematically classifies those around him (so footnotes to his simple description of a "large" lady refer us to a scientific study on obesity) and is both an emotional and physical victim of his disability. Mawer has created a character we feel for deeply, but who is also very difficult, angry, stubborn and nasty at times.

Real, in other words. As he needs to be for the final part of the book to work. In it, Lambert becomes romantically involved with a "normal" woman (indeed, she is plain and mouse-like, refreshing qualities for a love interest), whose husband is impotent. The doctor agrees to help her have a baby, but left alone in the laboratory with the resultant embryos, he must decide which way to load the genetic dice. Will he implant those that carry the gene for dwarfism, as an act of revenge against the world? Or the healthy ones? Or a mixture, and refuse to play God?

Mendel's Dwarf presents the ethical dilemmas of modern genetic research in a love story that lurches from sharp humour to jaw-dropping sadness and back again in pages. True, there is a lot of science to get through - but the reader seems to acquire knowledge by accident, thanks to Mawer's simplicity and wit. Knowing nothing of genetics, and wary of my scientific ignorance, I picked this book up on the beach and got through it without stopping. It is a marvellous read, maybe even (here comes the cliche, as promised, but for once deserved) the Fever Pitch of genetics.

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