ARK BABY by Liz Jensen


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A grab bag of a story that offers a literate if self-conscious and scattered tour of Victorian grotesqueries as postmillennial Britain faces extinction. Second-novelist Jensen (Egg Dancing, not reviewed) moves from the coming millennium back to the Victorian period, and forward again, in an attempt to illuminate the many strange links between humans and their nearest primate kin. A torrential rain has caused a mysterious decline in fertility, and by 2005 it’s clear that Britons will likely become extinct. Primates have become substitute infants, and when veterinarian Bobby Sullivan is accused of having murdered one (he insists that he was only following the orders of the jealous husband), the threat of prosecution sends him north to the remote seaside town of Thunder Spit, where all Jensen’s narrative threads eventually converge. The author’s version of the Victorian age here is populated with a crowd of odd or outright freakish individuals. The famous taxidermist Dr. Scrapie, of Thunder Spit, has been asked to mount an elaborate collection of stuffed animals for Queen Victoria. His wife, the “Empress of Laudanum,” has drug-induced visions of the future, and their giantess daughter, Violet, is a noted vegetarian cook. There’s also a former slave-trader searching for animal specimens for the Queen and hoping, meanwhile, to figure out whether apes and humans can mate—and who finds the last “Gentleman Monkey” in the wild and puts him in a cage with a captive ballerina. Meanwhile, the harried Bobby is attracted to Rose and Blanche, twins with unusual feet and body hair. Pregnant by Bobby, the two women, who turn out (of course) to be descendants of the gentleman monkey and the ballerina, via Violet, are the result of an “evolutionary tangent”—the sudden changes that speed up evolution and produce a new breed of humans. They are also, it seems, the mothers of a new race of Brits. Strained would-be satire, with its intellectual and narrative punch diluted by very obvious foreshadowing.

Pub Date: April 24th, 1998
ISBN: 0-87951-833-2
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1998


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