on 21 April 2001
You only have to look at Matthew Kneale's Whitbread prize winning novel English Passengers to see that evolutionary theory combined with genetics is a hot topic for English writers at the moment. As Kneale proved, it is a subject ripe for wit and farce. Such is the tone of Liz Jensen's social satire, Ark Baby. Liz Jensen even mentions Gregor Mendel, the Czech Monk whose games with peas have recently been resurrected by Robin Marantz Henig in A Monk and Two Peas.
Bobby Sullivan is a vet who lives in a Britain where no babies have been born since the Millennium. He himself was born on the day Elvis died; a memorable date in history if ever there was one. Unbeknownst to him, Bobby Sullivan is going to play a quite considerable role in evolution. Trouble is, he has to get out of town first, since his mercy killing of a marriage has got him into a wee bit of trouble. Here, you begin to see the evolution of Liz Jensen's own creations: 'Giselle' previously appeared as a short story all of its own, and concerned the disposal of a dog, rather than a Macaque monkey. There's also an early sight of Jensen's next novel 'The Paper Eater' on page 102, when Bobby Sullivan muses that the fate of Britain may be to become a nuclear waste dumping ground (since there would be no one living there, due to the fertility crisis). The story also moves back in time, to the discovery of a curious small baby, abandoned in the church of Parson Phelps. The good priest, after giving what he thinks is a pig a good kick on the bottom, repents by taking the child in. The care given by the Parson and his wife means that Tobias Phelps (as they christen him), can recover from his injuries. But who is the strange, illiterate woman whose narrative interrupts the text? Who has been conducting far more ambitious experiments than Gregor Mendel?
Thus Buck de Savile (Bobby Sullivan's new identity) arrives in the ancient Viking settlement of Thunder Spit. He believes that he has successfully escaped the town practice where monkey pets have replaced children, and is looking forward to inserting his arm into a cow's bottom. But it's not long before Buck is dragged off to look at some examples of Victorian taxidermy stuffed into a Thunder Spit attic inhabited by a comic ghost known as 'the Laudanum Empress', an avid fan of the crystal box which spews forth 'The Young and the Restless'. We jump back another 150 years and watch from a balloon as the mortal Laudanum Empress and her eminent taxidermist husband Ivanhoe Scrapie conceive their last child, Violet. Thus begins the chain of events which brings Horace Trapp's bloodstained Ark home, along with chef extraordinaire, Jacques-Yves Cabillaud, exponent of 'Cuisine Zoologique', a recipe book which he developed whilst acting as cook on board the Beagle. Meanwhile, Buck gets to grips with beautiful twin sisters Rose and Blanche and their peculiarly shaped feet. The twins participate in the mass pregnancy hoax following the bombing of the National Egg Bank and the death of Albion. As Rose and Blanche research their family history, Buck begins to wonder about his stamina and the stuffed 'Gentleman Monkey': could it be valuable evidence of a missing link?
Parson Phelps tells Tobias that fossils are just God's little joke, but he takes the publication of Charles Darwin's work very seriously, to the extent of ripping pages of it from the pulpit. Ivanhoe Scrapie, frustrated zoologist, also despairs that his fame has been eclipsed by that of Darwin. But just as Tobias discovers a strange and tantalising new fruit, so Scrapie thinks that he has found a missing piece of the puzzle. Violet, who has positively ballooned under the influence of cuisine zoologique, has a chance encounter with Henry Salt, the Victorian Vegetarianism activist. Soon, everybody's writing cookbooks...
Liz Jensen's social satire is as vibrant and readable as ever. Ark Baby has jokes trotting out of it two by two. She's also quick to point out that Darwinism and evolution theory still resound today, especially with the mapping of the human genome. Also buried within these pages are hints of the real life stories and tragedies: the difficult relationship between Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle and Darwin (echoed in Matthew Kneale's English Passengers), the interbreeding of the inhabitants of Thunder Spit recalls Darwin's infertile marriage to his first cousin, mentions of fossil hunting in Lyme Regis revivifies Mary Anning. But I think the most successful resurrection of all is that of Henry Salt. Suet the dog's instinctive reaction is to bite him, but even he sheds a tear as Henry Salt expounds on the Rights of Animals. Henry Salt's writings are still as powerful today, and extremely topical as Foot and Mouth runs on. I've created a page on the context of this novel for interested readers. Liz Jensen's brilliantly entertaining satire should also be as powerful many years from now. Liz Jensen is nothing less than George Orwell with wit.
on 6 November 2001
I think this cover is a bit misleadingly raunchy - the cover of the copy I read was a picture of a chimpanzee, which was much more fitting for a comedy.
The novel comprises two storylines: one about a vet a few years in the future, when a mysterious infertility is afflicting only the women of the UK; the other about an unusual child, abandoned in Victorian times on a minister's doorstop. The book is highly enjoyable to read, and sometimes surprisingly poignant considering the outlandish premise. To say more would be to give too much away: give yourself a break from the chick-lit and the Grisham factory and try something unusual...
on 17 October 1999
This is a helter-skelter literary romp through the world in which soon might find ourselves living. Definitely one of the finest crafter of novels I have read for many years. I picked up Ark Baby before a plane journey to New York, planning to save it for a rainy day, and found I couldn't put it down until I reached my hotel room. The latest Martin Amis which I bought with it, stayed at the bottom of the suitcase -- and little wonder that I opened the New York Times to find Jensen hailed as the most promising young literary talent in Britain right now.
Liz Jensen's 'Ark Baby' is a novel with three plots which converge at the end.
The first plot line is contemporary. Following the Millenium, all the women in the UK have become sterile and have resorted to adopting various animals, but mostly chimps and monkeys, as child substitutes. A London vet, Bobby Sullivan has been forced to flee to Thunder Spit in order to make a new life.
The two other plots are set in Thunder Spit and London in Victorian times.
The first involves the Queen's taxidermist and his daughter Violet and the second a young foundling called Tobias Phelps, who has a tapeworm called Matilda and excessive body hair!
This is a really involving, clever and witty novel. I really didn't want it to end. The characters are nothing if not peculiar, but by the end of the novel you really care about them. The way in which Jensen concludes the novel is masterly.
I didn't want it to end. Highly recommended.
on 6 April 2011
From the turn of the millennium all women within the British Isles have been left infertile with no scientific answer to why or how. Due to this crisis couples unable to have children of their own `fashionably' adopt lower primates to fulfil their mothering needs. A veterinarian, Bobby Sullivan, after illegally killing a client's wife's monkey after accepting a bribe, goes on the run to a remote seaside town called Thunderspit. Once settling into the town he finds himself involved with female twins who are not shy to share themselves with him; determined to end the infertility in Britain...
Mixing intellectual ideas of social progress in a humourous way with theories of evolution and views on Christianity, Liz Jenson manages to keep a surprising air of dazzling humour throughout the book. She further keeps the readers interest active by exploring why people react as they do in a crisis and how choices such as religion and money effect the way people deal with life.
Using two equally exciting duel story lines set in different times, this clever yet complex way of telling the tale of two lives intertwines them at first in a rather juxtaposed way but progresses with a smooth clever storyline that leaves you awe struck.
The novel is written in a detailed way, keeping the reader's attention with excitement and exhilaration. However, towards the end of the book the conclusion is obvious and seems to be dragged out when the mystery is already solved. Nevertheless it is a unique original idea that is expressed through a balanced mix of humour and intelligence.
on 26 June 2010
This is the second Liz Jensen book that I've read and I'm not disappointed. She again uses the same flitting between main characters, but in a natural way that clicks in really well together. I really enjoyed the way she ties in the emotions of each character as well as including the twist, in this case, the whole evolution/Darwin theory. Although the two main characters are set in completely different times/eras/situations, the way she writes and the language used really set the scene in your mind's eye. Looking forward to reading another of her's very soon!