Posts Tagged ‘Darwin’


I am coming to adore Frances Hardinge!

I’ve only read this and Cuckoo Song to be fair, but there’s something about her
imagination and her writing which chimes with me: dark, intensely personal, yet somehow mythic at the same time. She captures a sense of wonder,  of terror, of awe which is simultaneously so childlike and so mature.

And she does write girls who are struggling to find their own identity really well!

Here, Hardinge branches away from contemporary fantasy to historic fiction with a fantastical edge. Perhaps magic realist. But not quite. She’s a hard writer to pigeonhole into a genre – as if that is ever a meaningful thing to do in any event! Anyway, the novel opens with Faith Sunderley consoling her brother Howard on a ferry to the island of Vale as her father,  Reverend Erasmus Sunderley – famed naturalist – and her mother Myrtle busy themselves elsewhere.

We are transported whole-heartedly into this provincial Victorian post-Darwinian world. Science strives against religion; women strive against patriarchy and each other; children strive to find themselves. Reputation and courage and a coquettish sexuality become the currency with which her characters compete.

The move to the island is shrouded in mystery for a large portion of the book, as is a mysterious plant brought along by Erasmus.

And we are introduced to the microcosm of the island: phrenologists,  photographers and prelates; scheming wives, a hint of a love that then did not dare say its name, ratting and archeology; the faithful, the faithless and the superstitious. All the details – especially perhaps those deliciously macabre details of the mocked up post-death photographs in a world without PhotoShop – were so utterly convincing.

And evocative.

Hints and teases of layers of symbolism lay behind almost every image in the book. Nothing ever pinned down by a clumsy exposition. The feeling I was left with is that, like the lie tree itself, these layers – perhaps these leaves – of subtle whispery layers of meaning would burn away with too much sunlight. Enjoy the teasing.  Enjoy the evocation. Don’t try to pin down a single meaning because you’ll lose so much more!

The mystery persists in the book until, that is, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderley dies and Faith discovers his notebooks and the fantastical truth: the plant feeds off lies and its fruits contain visions of truths. Her father’s big lie was a fraudulent skeleton of a nephilim; the truth he sought was of the nature of God and man.

Big topics for a purportedly young adult book!

The novel is – in part – a detective mystery seeking to uncover the truth of Erasmus’ death. It is a meditation on the power of narrative. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a multifaceted jewel. A pomegranate of a book.

There was so much to love in it! But what particularly moved me was Faith’s reconciliation with her mother: distance and coldness became active disgust on her father’s death; but, as Faith became more aware of the constraints put on women by the patriarchy, there was a genuine mutual respect and warmth between the two.

It is a delight of a book and deservedly won the Costa prize this year and – all things being equal – should garner a clutch of other prizes too.


Some books are born great.

Some books achieve greatness.

Some books have greatness thrust upon them.

This book is not one of them. It’s not great. It’s not beautifully written. It’s not literary.

But it is immensely fun!


Mark Hodder propels us into Victorian London: the search for the source of the Nile, Stanley, Livingstone, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne, Darwin, Babbage and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; smog, hansom cabs, Penny Farthings. And giant, genetically engineered swans pulling kites in which people can sit.

Yes, giant swans. Yes, genetic engineering. Huge elephantine megadrays. Trained parakeets for delivering verbal messages – spiced with additional swear words of the parakeets’ own choice. Werewolves. Flying steam powered armchairs. Even the Penny Farthings are motorised.

There are two basic sects in Albertian London: Libertines who celebrate freedom, art, poetry and sexual experimentation and their slightly more extreme brethren the Rakes for whom every law is an undue limit on their freedom; and scientists who are split between Engineers and Eugenicists.

Hodder’s London is a steampunk alternate history world which gives Hodder plenty of opportunity to be playful and inventive. At times, I felt he was at risk of becoming somewhat self indulgent in his creativity and re-interpretation of Victoria’s London into Albert’s but there is a cracking yarn at the heart of the story which knots it together.

Our hero is Sir Richard Burton – soldier, explorer and linguist – scarred physically and mentally from expeditions in Africa and the debate with his friend John Speke over the source of the Nile – adrift in a world that seems to be turning its back on him. Until he is offered the position of King’s Agent with the brief to investigate the weird and unusual. Yes, there are weirder and more unusual things in the world than giant swans. Werewolves or loup-garou for example; and Spring-Heeled Jack.

Burton is accompanied and assisted by Algernon Swinburne, the poet whose incarnation here is a libertine influenced by de Sade but small and childish he gives the infamous and deadly Burton something of a foil … and an opportunity to infiltrate the chimney sweeps of London. He was the weakest character in the book for me: he didn’t offer much and the humour he added was a tad puerile and focused on his sexual enjoyment of some of the beatings he received. Whereas the were elements of Holmes about Burton; Swinburne didn’t balance him the way Watson balances Holmes.

The explanation for Spring-Heeled Jack was one that I guessed pretty quickly but is, I guess, a spoiler. Perhaps it will suffice to say that 10th of June 1840 is the critical date in the novel: the day in (true) history when Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria. It has to be true: its in Wikipedia! Imagine the effect of that assassination attempt on his descendants, the shame forever attached to the family. Imagine them wishing that he had never made that attempt…

As I said at the beginning, this was not a great book; it was a fun, well imagined, romp through a steampunk alternative universe. It is creative and well paced; it works as steampunk and it works as an action/thriller.

Good. Clean. Fun.

No real thinking required.

And there’s nothing wrong with that!

This is a debut novel and clearly – whilst self contained – anticipated to be part of a series: not all the antagonists are captured or disposed of and it is a rich world full of potential and two further books have been written The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.

Worth a look?

Hell yeah!

Ah, Doctor Jekyll I presume!

This is one of my favourite concepts for a book and, like Dracula and Frankenstein, such a hugely evocative character and concept. It is intuitively resonant that lurking within all of us, behind the mask and veneer of social mores and decency, is a rampaging, amoral, bestial, primitive, reptilian beast. It is The Incredible Hulk, the werewolf; in Freudian terms, the conflict between the Id and the Superego; in Jungian terms – which is my favoured approach here – it is the Persona and the true identity.

What’s the critical difference between Freudian and Jungian approaches to Jekyll and Hyde? I’m no psychologist and my understanding is self-confessedly limited. For me, Freud would view Hyde as regressive, a retreat into the Id, a return to a childlike, animalistic slavery to impulse without the higher functions of the Superego. Jekyll would therefore be Freud’s tortured hero. For Jung, in my opinion, the roles would be reversed. Jekyll would be seen as the Persona, the shallow and brittle mask that has been selected to be presented to the world; it is an arbitrary selection, possibly imposed by external forces such as a father’s ambition. Hyde, therefore, would be viewed as the true and natural state of the man released through a – here pharmacologically induced – enantiodromia. Jung, therefore, may view Hyde as the tragic hero.


Moving to the book. Let’s be honest, the writing style is not one that sits naturally with me. The somewhat clinical nature of the narration prevents Stevenson from developing his descriptions – with one or two notable exceptions – and the whole novella comes in at only 50 or so pages and no more than a couple of hours reading time.

Perhaps it says more about me than anything else but I would love to have seen more of the horrors of Hyde’s excursions. Films dwell on it – usually going to excess in the other direction – but Stevenson is almost silent. When we do see Hyde, his interactions still strike me as rather urbane. The epitome of evil – a word which I balk against by nature – seems incongruous when negotiating an out of court settlement for compensation!

Somewhere in my mind I recall hearing that Stevenson excised descriptions of Hyde’s excesses for fear of upsetting his wife – was he even married? – but I so wish he’d left them in!