Thursday, April 14, 2005

Cloning, Embalming, Dissection, and the 18th Century Felon

These are a few of the elements woven together by Jenny Davidson in her debut novel, Heredity (Soft Skull Press $14), the story of protagonist (and narrator) Elizabeth Mann’s stay in London as she tries to sort out her life and her relationships.

While working as a freelance writer for a budget travel series, Elizabeth resumes a relationship with the much older –and very much married—Gideon. She accompanies him to an antiques auction, where he is bested by his father-in-law in a bid to acquire more 18th century surgical tools for his collection. Disgusted, Gideon gives Elizabeth the box of worthless papers he ended up with, and there she finds the mildewed diaries of Mary Wild, second wife of notorious 18th century executed criminal Jonathan Wild, whose skeleton Elizabeth had seen –and been intrigued with—on a visit to the Hunterian Museum in London. Elizabeth becomes obsessed with the Wilds; she wants to have Jonathan’s baby and to recover Mary’s words from the damaged pages. The rest of the novel basically chronicles Elizabeth’s attempts to accomplish those goals, while having plenty of smokes, drinks, and sex.

This plot summary hardly does justice to Heredity – there’s much more here than just plot twists. There’s plenty to like, including Elizabeth’s voice, if not her character; while she’s not a very sympathetic character, she is a compelling narrator – cynical and drily witty:

* The double narrative. The main narrative is Elizabeth’s first person present-tense account, set in London circa 1998. This narrative is periodically interrupted by Jonathan Wild’s story, which seems to have initially been a problematic arrangement for Davidson:

I wrote at least half-a-dozen versions of Wild's story without finding a voice and structure that worked (third-person omniscient; first-person confessional; Q&A, with hack writer Daniel Defoe interviewing Wild in the condemned cell the night before his execution; you get the idea). But I couldn't figure out how to bring to life any of the things that made the story so compelling to me in the first place, including the casual violence of life in the 1720s and the intense vividness of people and places as they are represented in contemporary accounts. (From Jenny Davidson’s essay about Heredity in her British publisher’s site)

Fortunately, Davidson found the appropriate narrator –and narrative structure-- to present Jonathan Wild’s story:

The voice of Mary Wild - the author of the manuscript that Elizabeth Mann unearths and deciphers over the course of the novel - came later, when I realized that my schematic let's-contrast-first-person-present-tense-female-narrator-in-1998-with-third-person-past-tense-narration-of-1720s approach was outrageously misguided. (Ibid.)

The contrast between Mary and Elizabeth, and between 18th century and 20th century England, provides both interest and depth to the novel.

* The protagonist’s penchant for research and arcane knowledge. I enjoyed following Elizabeth into the British Library to learn about body snatching, the history of dissection, 18th century embalming practices, and of course, the life and death of notorious outlaw Jonathan Wild.

* The narrative thread relating to Elizabeth’s father and her relationship to him. I admit I was shocked at what the root of Elizabeth’s problem with her dad turned out to be. I also found the underlying issues related to father figures interesting, although perhaps undeveloped.

* Resolution of the cloning issue within the narrative. It was believable and while that shouldn’t have been surprising, it was. I was prepared for an ending that was more science fiction. I only wish that Davidson would have taken some more time (and pages) to develop the ending – it felt rushed.

Overall, I enjoyed Heredity, and would recommend it. But I do have some issues:

* Heavy-handed use of research. One particular example stands out: Elizabeth’s imaginary conversation with the creator of Dolly the Cloned Sheep. What was the point of that? Fortunately, it was a short conversation…

* Continuity problems (I feel like I’m working on a movie, nitpicking, but still…): In one chapter Elizabeth mentions she has given Gideon a key to her apartment, which he uses to get in. A little later, Gideon buzzes and Elizabeth has to let him in. A minor thing, I know, but it stopped my reading flow. I was also somewhat nonplussed that Elizabeth desperately wanted to become pregnant and yet she continued drinking for some days after the IVF procedure – without even giving it a thought. Granted, it could be part of her characterization, but still it nagged at me.

* Rushed ending. I would have preferred more time and space invested on developing the ending and exploring the dynamics of Elizabeth’s relationship with Gideon and with her father, instead of having so much attention spent on Elizabeth’s various self-destructive habits. In particular, the resolution of Elizabeth’s relationship rang a bit hollow, probably because it was rather rushed. Gideon butted head-on against Elizabeth’s Wild obsession, and yet, it hardly seemed to affect her. I also thought it was odd that Gideon and Elizabeth never even considered the implications of having children together (particularly given the apparent infertility of Gideon’s wife).

[In the interest of self-disclosure: Jenny Davidson is a fellow blogger and a frequent visitor at Bookish Marginalia. And she gave me leave to be brutally honest.]

For more information:

  • Jenny Davidson's essay on Heredity in the Serpent's Tail Publishing site, explaining her interest in Jonathan Wild, how she developed the voice of Mary Wild, and why sex is a prominent part of the novel (trust me, the actual novel is much less prurient than any summary would seem):
Depending on your reading preferences, this novel is either value for money or else a complete nightmare. (The mother who ill-advisedly brought her young daughter to a reading in Berkeley fixed me with a look of utter horror and leaned over literally to cover up the girl's ears when my narrator told her married lover to unbutton his pants and take out his cock.)

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