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
Why it matters 26 million people have changed their Facebook profile picture to a rainbow flag
The age of inactivity: How laziness is killing us
What do the emojis on Snapchat mean?
Zero divided by zero: Ask Siri a simple question, have your social life mocked
iPhone 7: Force Touch phones are being prepared for launch, say reports
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 3 French woman dies in freak bungee jumping accident
- 4 Greece crisis: Crowdfunding campaign crashes Indiegogo, raises half a million in just three days
- 5 Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck to divorce and end their 10-year marriage
£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...
£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...
£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...
£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...