What a great idea for a novel – take the most famous evolutionist in the history of science, a son who didn’t exist and construct a ‘factitious’ biography of said son’s ‘Life and Collected Works’.
Thomas Darwin is purported to be the youngest son of the famous Charles, daughter of Emma (née Wedgwood, yes the pottery people). His mum and dad are first cousins (a trifling matter, but neatly ironic). Thomas is a bit of a strange child, ‘alone but not lonely’ and more than likely to follow in his father’s footsteps, except – as we already know from the cover, and the Preface (but keep forgetting because we’re so drawn into this life story) Thomas will die in an insane asylum by the time he’s 21 and his ‘life’s work’ will culminate in an ultimately flawed study of the evolution of inanimate objects.
I loved the premise that inanimate objects actually evolve. I’m moving house soon, and while reading the book in the pre-move sorting out phase, found myself noting three generations of apple macs, the leap in evolution from the 56k dial up modem to wi-fi router, food processor via pestle and mortar – getting carried away now, I don’t own a food processor – but you see where I’m going. I was intrigued and totally taken up with Thomas’s theory, until I spot the flaw, the uh-oh moment when the reader realises that Thomas Darwin is insane.
Harry Karlinsky is a clever guy. Not only is he a Professor of Psychiatry, but this little book (just over 200 pages) is his debut novel. The reason it works so well? Not only is the biographical format anatomically correct and wonderfully annotated (watch out for footnotes that contradict the text!), but because it tells a very human story.
I’d like to say more but even though I finished reading it a week ago, I’m still trying to get my head round what was truth and what was fiction. Last night I found myself tracking down the Charles Darwin family tree, just to make sure Thomas really wasn’t his son. Today I’ve started wondering if Harry Karlinsky isn’t fictional too. His bio looks sound and I’ve done some googling, but then I start to wonder if we – his readers – are part of some pyschiatric-slash-literary experiment. Then everything goes a little weird…
A brilliant read.
The Evolution of Inanimate Objects: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857-1879), Harry Karlinsky. Published by The Friday Project (Harper Collins imprint). 2012.
About to pack all my books away and put them into storage for a few months. A difficult decision, but necessary while we embark on one of our adventures.
This particular adventure involves clinging to a Welsh hillside in a mobile home for 6 months whilst we look for somewhere more permanent to live. At least it will be summer and we will have views, family nearby and lots of visitors. Oh, and the cat.
I’ll be doing lots of writing (aided by not-terribly-effective internet reception) and reading ALL the outstanding books on my to-read list (pictured – minus a couple I’m currently reviewing). So, wish me luck. Two weeks to go. Aargh.
Something outside is making a noise, somewhere between a squeak, a miaow and a croak. Don’t know what it is, maybe a stray cat, a howling mouse or itinerant hedgehog. It’s night-time. I can’t see out so I choose to ignore it and concentrate on familiar noises inside the house. Feels right. Feels better.
It’s 2am and I am reuniting things with their cables; sewing machine with foot pedal, eReader with USB, camera with download cable… I have NO idea why or when these things ended up not just detached, but at opposite ends of the house. FFS. Civilisations could fall for want of a download cable.
It probably happened before – thousands of years ago – a download cable carelessly dropped into a peat bog, and shit, someone had to start inventing things all over again. We will never know.
Like I don’t know what was scratching around outside. If I go and look when it’s light I might find clues; a few tracks – if it snowed, maybe, which it hasn’t – or some flattened grass – if it had grown recently, which it hasn’t. So I won’t ever know. Will it matter? Probably not. Not to me. I’m not attached to anything out there that can’t look after itself. I’m only attached to things inside the house and the things inside me. I do not need a cable. Having said that, I don’t retain a lot of information, it passes in and out again on a regular (daily) basis but I can still make a wonderful cup of coffee.
I drink my coffee the same way every day and have done for years. It’s a habit. We should all cultivate more habits, stick with them, pass them on. That’s the way to keep things alive. Fresh. Interesting. Civilised.