{ Sci­ence }

The Guardian - Review - - Out In Paperback -

by Oliver Sacks, Pi­cador, £9.99

This post­hu­mous es­say col­lec­tion from the man known as the poet lau­re­ate of medicine, fol­low­ing his death from can­cer three years ago, means we get to spend time again with Sacks the botanist, the his­to­rian of sci­ence, the ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist and, of course, the neu­rol­o­gist.

There are 10 es­says here, the ma­jor­ity pub­lished pre­vi­ously in the New York Re­view of Books. Their sub­ject mat­ter re­flects the agility of Sacks’s en­thu­si­asms, mov­ing from for­get­ting and ne­glect in sci­ence to Freud’s early work on the neu­roanatomy of fish; from the men­tal lives of plants and in­ver­te­brates to the mal­leabil­ity of our per­cep­tion of speed. This last es­say has some char­ac­ter­is­tic flour­ishes: of Parkin­son’s dis­ease, Sacks writes that “be­ing in a slowed state is like be­ing stuck in a vat of peanut but­ter, while be­ing in an ac­cel­er­ated state is like be­ing on ice”.

Some of the slighter pieces here suf­fer from be­ing placed be­tween more sub­stan­tial work, and in one his ar­gu­ment loses co­her­ence. But Sacks was in love with de­tails: it’s in the foot­notes that his trea­sures are of­ten to be found. Gavin Fran­cis

Each of the 17 short pieces in this ex­tra­or­di­nary book catches a fa­mous his­tor­i­cal an­i­mal just at the mo­ment it dan­gles pre­car­i­ously be­tween na­ture and cul­ture. We meet Clever Hans the horse, Mike the head­less chicken and Ara­bella, the com­mon cross spi­der who was sent into space so boffins could ob­serve the ef­fect of zero grav­ity on her in­tri­cate craft.

Most fa­mous of all is the ap­prox­i­mate rhi­noc­eros that Al­brecht Dürer cre­ated in 1515, which be­came lodged in Eu­rope’s imag­i­nary menagerie for the next two cen­turies: “a twohorned body twisted by the facts of hu­man anx­i­ety and awe”.

Pas­sarello tests and stretches the es­say form in thrilling ways. Par­tic­u­larly bril­liant is an ex­tended fan­tasy writ­ten from the point of view of Har­riet, the Galá­pa­gos tor­toise whom Dar­win re­port­edly brought back on the Bea­gle.

The au­thor un­der­pins her wild imag­i­na­tion and py­rotech­nic prose with rig­or­ous re­search. It is only, she sug­gests, by com­ing clean about how we have used an­i­mals to make sense of our own lives that we can be­gin to work out how we might set about re­pair­ing theirs. Kathryn Hughes

It is two cen­turies since Mary Shel­ley’s re­an­i­mated mon­ster drifted into the dark­ness on an ice floe. In this sur­real, vis­ceral and mor­dant novel by Iraqi au­thor and film-maker Ahmed Saadawi, short­listed for this year’s Man Booker In­ter­na­tional prize, we meet his 21st-cen­tury cousin.

Franken­stein in Bagh­dad is set in the af­ter­math of the US in­va­sion of Iraq, where Hadi, a junk dealer, re­trieves a dam­aged body from the streets – he can­not coun­te­nance the idea of hasty buri­als of corpses that are in­com­plete. What en­sues is an acute por­trait of Mid­dle Eastern sec­tar­i­an­ism and geopo­lit­i­cal in­ep­ti­tude, an ab­sur­dist moral­ity fable, and a hor­ror fan­tasy.

Saadawi stitches the nar­ra­tive to­gether from so many points of view and points in time that the ten­sion has a ten­dency to dis­si­pate, but this is in keep­ing with the novel’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with war’s ab­sur­dity. His strange, vi­o­lent and wickedly funny book bor­rows heav­ily from the sci­ence fic­tion canon, and pays back the debt with in­ter­est: it is a re­mark­able achieve­ment. Sarah Perry

The haunted house – if not pos­sessed by lit­eral ghosts, then by trau­matic mem­o­ries – is a trope writ­ers have used for cen­turies. In this psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller from Stephanie Mer­ritt, known for his­tor­i­cal crime nov­els writ­ten as SJ Par­ris, hero­ine Zoe ar­rives at a ren­o­vated man­sion on a re­mote Scot­tish is­land, run­ning from a bad mar­riage.

While You Sleep hits a mid­point be­tween Broad­church and Anne Brontë’s The Ten­ant of Wild­fell Hall. Zoe meets sus­pi­cious, tight-lipped is­lan­ders, a fusty pro­fes­sor ob­sessed with es­o­ter­ica, a dis­turbed child who re­fuses to talk about “The In­ci­dent”. Mer­ritt’s bit­ing wit comes across in exquisitely un­com­fort­able scenes be­tween Zoe and the lo­cals.

Like all gothic hero­ines, Zoe finds her­self ques­tion­ing her own re­al­ity, while Mer­ritt’s back­ground as a his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist is well suited to the par­al­lel nar­ra­tive of Vic­to­rian hero­ine Ailsa McBride. Ailsa’s rap­tur­ous sex scenes with the in­cubus sum­moned by her spir­i­tu­al­ist late hus­band, a kind of oth­er­worldly Story of O, could be read as an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of rape cul­ture tropes through a gothic lens. Caro­line O’Donoghue

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