Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Oliver Sacks

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-45114-5
Publisher: Knopf

 Sacks's fans are in for a treat: This is a magical medical mystery tour of South Sea islands that goes beyond the neurological lore to reveal the good doctor as historian, botanist, environmentalist, anthropologist, and, as always, caring human being. This is really two books. The first is an examination of natives of the Micronesian island of Pingelap, where a high percentage are born without color-sensing cells, or cones, in their retinas. Thus, they have no experience of color and also lack visual acuity; on the other hand, they have accommodated with increased sensitivity to texture. They are also acutely sensitive to light and squint in daylight, seeking the comfort of twilight or nightfall as their best times. Sacks is accompanied by an ophthalmologist and a Norwegian scientist who is also an ``achromatope.'' History and politics explain how there can be such high prevalence of a rare genetic disease: With an island's population reduced by severe climatic catastrophes or by colonizers, a mutant gene can spread through the surviving inbred community. Guam is the site of the second neurological phenomenon- -one that remains a mystery. Numbers of native Chamorros suffer from ``lytico-bodig''--a kind of triple-threat neuropathology that can take the form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, various kinds of parkinsonism, or dementia. Here Sacks and his companionate physicians are revealed as marvelously empathic in their visits to afflicted families. There is more to the Guam story, however. The celebration of nature, the stories of Sacks's youth in England, his lifelong love of plants, and the fragility of the islands form a passionate subtheme. Military operation, and tourism with hotels and golf courses are the contemporary versions of the colonizer mentality that wrought havoc in the past. Yet scenes of surpassing beauty remain, and we have Sacks to thank for recording them along with the examples of indomitable will and adaption that humans can manifest. (10 drawings, 2 maps) (First printing of 150,000; Literary Guild alternate selection; author tour)