The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, by Harry Karlinsky

Small print writ large: I was sent this copy by the publisher, apparently on the grounds that I’d been fairly direct in expressing my dislike about another book that he had liked. This is when you know you can write a straight review.

So, Karlinsky has written a sort of novel that purports to be as per the sub-title: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857-1879). Pretty much it does what it says on the tin, describing the short life and wacky scientific theory of a fake son of Darwin, while throwing in enough genuine historical reference to Charles Darwin himself that it does blur the boundaries between fiction and history and you can’t always be entirely sure what the author is making up and what is real. Unless you know a lot more about Darwin, C,. than I do, anyway, which admittedly wouldn’t be difficult. I mean, maybe there really was a Thomas Darwin? I’d really like to know if the extracts from Emma Darwin’s letters are fake, because sometimes those Victorians can sound disarmingly modern.

Anyway, even if there was a Thomas Darwin,  I doubt that he propounded the theory that utensils mate and evolve into new forms and then wrote up an illustrated scientific paper on the subject, so I’m going to assume that the author came up with that one. (And based on a couple of the photos, it’s not entirely unconvincing.) I’ve no problem with the generally whimsical nature of the book, and I liked the deadpan descriptions of Thomas Darwin’s Victorian youth with minor milestones like first sneeze or first yawn painstakingly captured by his papa. It’s all intelligently humorous rather than laugh out loud funny, but charming enough that it passed a pleasant couple of hours. I’d say bantamweight, not featherweight.

But, from almost the first page I was reminded of Ella Lesatele’s Absent Classics series, of which, to my great regret, I only have The Book of Lost Colours. Ella wrote, illustrated and made several books in very limited numbers a few years ago, and subscribers got a copy in return for sending her a book. The tone of Ella’s books is  similarly whimsical to that of Karlinsky (and by ‘whimsical’ can I be clear that I don’t mean it in any way in a cutesy sense), so I didn’t feel I was coming to something new.

What also made Inanimate Objects a harder sell was that I’d just finished The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope, so the faux 19th century stuff didn’t quite cut it. Colour me tweed and call me professor, but splitting infinitives and getting confused between ibid and idem have much the same effect on me as bouncing a ping-pong ball off my forehead. It’s an unpleasant shock and it makes me go ‘Ouch’. I know that these are minor personal quibbles, though and overall, I kind of liked the book. I suspect the idea of it will stay with me longer than the story itself.

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