Sunday, April 30, 2006

This Thing of Darkness

This is Harry Thompson's first novel, and if I'd commissioned it myself, I couldn't have asked for something more suited to my own tastes.

Write me a book, I would say, that fictionalises real events and people. Give me a tragically flawed hero in the old naval mould, who commands a ship with panache and courage, and who is constantly fighting with his naturalist sidekick, who has many old-fashioned ideas of duty and kinship and who is always on the side of the weak and downtrodden. Give him some interesting scientific ideas that are rejected by the establishment but which are ultimately proved to be correct.

Except I would have said, don't kill him at the end. Leave it open for a sequel. Perhaps that's why it's as well I wasn't the one commissioning this book, because then you wouldn't have got the story of Captain Robert Fitzroy, commander of the Beagle and exuberantly religious foil to Charles Darwin and his new scientific discoveries. The whole book is a marvel, very much in the Patrick O'Brian vein, full of intellectual discoveries and quarrels and adventures and boys' fun, but, because the characters are real people, it's also full of the nastiness, selfishness, sickness and depression from which real people suffer in a way that fictional people do not. Darwin comes over, not as unlikeable, but as ambitious, vain, and a little spoiled. Fitzroy himself is a manic depressive and something of a Tory snob. Darwin is prepared to make his own mind up about the things he sees and hears, while Fitzory shoehorns everything into his existing view of the world. Darwin is the fittest who survived, Fitzroy is the old order who didn't.

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