Purporting to be an anonymous memoir found in an attic, its author is an arrogant but brilliant homosexual whose life has crossed with that of Charles Darwin with startling regularity. He is writing it on a small island in the Java Sea of which he is the only human inhabitant. Aware that his life will soon come to an end, he sets out the true story of the theory of natural selection, confesses a murder of his own and provides a fascinating and delightful account of the plans and animals of the island
Review by Erastes
I’m afraid that this is another book that was loudly lauded by all and sundry but leaves me going “and?” When I see the books that people I know produce and then see this, which does nothing to me at all, emotionally or intellectually, I wonder what is wrong with the world.
I was almost tempted to wipe it from Speak Its Name’s list, because, as will be clear it is speculative fiction, but I think-because of the conceit used, it can remain.
It’s an interesting concept: the conceit is that the book is real, even the publisher’s note at the beginning goes into depth extrapolating on where and when the manuscript was found, how it was written, and on what–then goes into Darwin’s life, and the possibility that this account may or may not be real. There’s also an editor’s note, bylined by Mr Drayton explaining the way it has been edited. The point, ably made at least, was to show how Alfred Russel Wallace and (more famously) Charles Darwin, came up with two independent and similar Theories of Evolution. The reason of this book being that they both got the idea from the narrator of this manuscript. (who purports to be an illegimate scion of the Darwin family).
So I picked it up, more than intrigued. Seeing as it combines two of my interests, natural history and gay historical fiction, I felt that surely I was going to love it, but try as I might, I just didn’t.
The book is told in two interweaving sections: one describes the island, and with each segment that relates to the place where the narrator (who is never named) is marooned, he goes into detail of the completely unique flora and fauna found there. Vampyric plants which parisitise young birds (but keep them free from worms), swallows that hibernate in mud, minnows that can survive in near boiling water. Drayson is a naturalist and zoologist–has written a book about birds and one about platypuses–so I don’t doubt his descriptions of these animals that never were, it’s just that it’s not terribly interesting.
I think that it’s partly to do with his narrator, who comes across as being so bland as to be frightfully dull, and this shouldn’t really be. He’s homosexual, he’s known this from quite young and seems to have had no angst about this. He’s had an event-filled life, travelling from Shrewsbury to Edinburgh to Cambridge to South Africa to Australia, hinting only as the decadence and high life he leads. He started promisingly when he realises the power he has over men who find him attractive. he uses his wiles to punish, to tease, to demand–and in this way, he says, he can keep just about any man at heel. But it’s the bland way he describes it all, not only with the bare minimum of detail, but more dispassionate than watching a beetle die in a killing jar (at which event he cried, copiously.)
Perhaps this is deliberate, perhaps we are supposed to get that he has less enthusiasm for life than he does for beetles, I don’t know. But it’s not how it seems to me, I don’t think that’s what Drayson was aiming at. I think we are supposed to find him adventurous and driven, but frankly I found him boring beyond belief and I heartily wished he’d fall into the volcano himself.
I can compare this book to Philipa Gregory’s “Earthly Joys” which I rate more highly, where the themes of passion for the natural world, and a compulsion for cataloguing and collection are described side by side by an adventurous life, and in this respect Earthly Joys succeeds and takes fruit, while in my eyes, Confessing a Murder is not deemed for natural selection and, to stretch an analogy to its limits, should have withered on the vine.
That being said, if you have any interest at all in Darwin, Wallace and the Theory, you will probably find this worth a read.