Books: Apes at an angle
Lynne Truss leaps the species barrier and appreciates some clever monkey business in a highly-evolved novel of ideas; Ark Baby by Liz Jensen Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99
Saturday 17 January 1998
It's a double narrative: two protagonists tell their stories, 150 years apart. In the year 2005, we have Bobby Sullivan, a cynical vet who thinks nothing of killing a pet monkey for dosh. He lives in very peculiar times. A fertility crisis presages the extinction of the British; an Egg Bank is sabotaged, monkeys are adopted as surrogate children; the demarcation lines of the human species are becoming unacceptably blurred.
Meanwhile, back in the 1860s, the deformed and hairy foundling Tobias Phelps grows up in a vicarage in Northumberland - a place of wind and flood, where men pull thistles for fun; the Old Testament is regarded as namby-pamby; and the new orthodoxy of Darwinism is cursed as an abomination.
Ark Baby is a clever, beautifully written, zeitgeisty novel about man's uncertain place in the great chain of being. What are the origins of Tobias? Do they have any connection with the so-called "Ark" - a converted slave ship whose cargo of stuffable animal specimens arrived dead and stinking in London?
The illiterate testimony of a woman caged on board the Ark among the beasts reminds us of a world of captivity, creaking boards, and frightened animals. Tobias has memories of a gilded cage, and toes like thumbs...
In the best sense of the word, the book is fanciful. And being fanciful, it is entertaining, even if its humour is not always the sort to make you laugh aloud. Light relief is provided by the household of Sir Ivanhoe Scrapie, chief taxidermist to the Palace, whose opium-addicted wife succumbs from eating the poisoned flesh of a Gentleman Monkey.
After death Mrs Scrapie hovers between the two narratives, inhabiting both, and informing her daughter Violet that the future contains such marvels as long-life milk. Nobody cares for her company very much in either time scheme, but from the reader's point of view, she's a riot.
Given that determinism is her principal theme, and that no clues are withheld from the reader, it is miraculous that Jensen still contrives to surprise us with the conclusion of the story. True, the characterisation is weaker in the modern strand. But if they gave prizes to authors for keeping a cool head under potential thematic overload - well, you have to hand it to someone who can juggle this lot.
Life & Style blogs
Video shows how to turn your phone into a 3D hologram
Gill Pharaoh: Healthy former nurse, 75, passes away at assisted dying clinic after deciding old age is 'awful'
Free porn websites could be shut down within months, says David Cameron
The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath
National Orgasm Day: Six reasons (plus one bogus one) why they're good for us
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
Is Britain really full up? Are migrants taking our jobs? Leading academic answers the most common anti-immigration claims
Calais Migrant Crisis: Deputy Mayor of Calais labels Cameron's use of 'swarm' as 'racist' and 'ignorant'
While we fixate on Calais, the Home Office is quietly deporting dozens of migrants on 'ghost flights'
Jeremy Corbyn's anti-austerity agenda will harm the poor, says Labour shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie
Calais crisis: The seven claims made about the migrants - and the reality
- 1 Video shows how to turn your phone into a 3D hologram
- 2 Artist Jamie McCartney: How The Great Wall of Vagina is a stand against 'body fascism'
- 3 Katie Hopkins reveals fear she will die during brain surgery to cure epilepsy
- 4 'Gene drive': Scientists sound alarm over supercharged GM organisms which could spread in the wild and cause environmental disasters
- 5 Dutch King Willem-Alexander declares the end of the welfare state
£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global technology company ...
£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has bec...
£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This strategic outsourcing and energy se...
£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an I...