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

There's a game you can sometimes play with ambitious fiction writers: reconstruct the reference library they gathered round them while their novels were taking shape. Liz Jensen's impressive second novel Ark Baby is the sort of book this game was invented for. Wilfrid Blunt's The Ark in the Park is a candidate, the biologist Steve Jones is a certainty; while Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda can't really be denied. Will Self's recent Great Apes? Well, that came out too late (and anyway, who cares?). But what about John Collier's 1930 novel His Monkey Wife? Ark Baby is a rich, original book which augments its appeal by reminding you of at least a dozen others.

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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

    £20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

    Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?