Ark Baby (Liz Jensen)
From SF Mistressworks — this issue’s review is courtesy of Ian Sales
Although not published as a science fiction writer, many of Jensen’s novels have been based on science-fictional conceits – My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (2006) on time travel, The Rapture (2009) on the end of the world…and Ark Baby (1997), whose plot is based an evolution, the “Missing Link”, an infertility epidemic and scientific methodology…
The story of Ark Baby runs in both 2005 and 1845. In the present-day narrative (although near-future, given when the book was originally published), vet Bobby Sullivan is sick of treating pet monkeys, which have become child substitutes since the UK is suffering from a “Fertility Crisis”, and the last monkey he treated he actually euthanised on the husband’s wishes, but the wife didn’t know and now she’s threatening legal action… So Sullivan heads north, re-inventing himself en route, and takes over as the only vet in a small village on the North East coast. Meanwhile, back in the nineteenth century, in the same village, Thunder Spit, the local parson finds a baby in his church, and takes it home and adopts it. He and his wife christen the baby Tobias, and he grows up to become a strangely hirsute young man with deformed feet. In London, also in 1845, Dr Ivanhoe Scrapie, a famed taxidermist, is putting together a zoo of stuffed animals for Queen Victoria, all of which are clothed. From the returned ship of an arch-rival, Scrapie rescues Cabillaud, the only surviving member of the crew, who is employed by Scrapie as a cook and develops a cuisine of exotic meats using the innards of the animals Scrapie is stuffing for the queen. Scrapie’s daughter, Violet, becomes a gourmand, thanks to Cabillaud; and Scrapie’s wife, nicknamed the Laudanum Empress because of her addiction to opium, dies and becomes a ghost. Back in 2005, Sullivan finds himself in a relationship with the Ball twins, who have more body hair than is normal and deformed feet. And it seems the twins have become pregnant, the first women in Britain to be in that state since the Fertility Crisis began…
Ark Baby‘s plot resists summarising because there’s so much going on in the book. The three main narratives are plainly linked and, while the links are not stated, they’re not hard to work out. It’s clear, for example, that the Balls are descended from Tobias Phelps (and Violet Scrapie). What is not said, but hardly constitutes a spoiler as the clues are obvious, is that Tobias’s father was actually a species of intelligent ape, known as the Gentleman Monkey. In fact, like the dodo, the Gentleman Apes have been hunted to extinction. But it takes Tobias most of the book to work this out for himself, and pretty much all of the book for Sullivan to do so.
What this somewhat glib plot précis fails to get across is that Ark Baby is very funny. Perhaps that’s obvious from the plot – it’s not, after all, as if its elements appear entirely serious. But Jensen writes with wit and humour, and still manages to make Tobias a sympathetic character. As the story jumps from narrative to narrative, Jensen keeps the level of invention high, successfully evokes the various periods, and peoples her story with a cast of amusing oddballs. As well as this, there are some serious points made – not least about the treatment of the Gentleman Apes, but also Cabillaud and his cuisine zoologique, the fate of Tobias’s mother, the Fertility Crisis (which is actually limited to the UK), and taxidermy.
Every time I read one of Liz Jensen’s novels, I tell myself I should read more of them. In that respect, Ark Baby was no different. Finishing it, I wanted to read one of her other books. For the meantime, however, I shall have to content myself with recommending this one.