Wednesday 16 July 2014

Invisible Beasts by Sharon Muir

Sophie is an amateur naturalist with a rare genetic gift: the ability to see a marvelous kingdom of invisible, sentient creatures that share a vital relationship with humankind. To record her observations, Sophie creates a personal bestiary and, as she relates the strange abilities of these endangered beings, her tales become extraordinary meditations on love, sex, evolution, extinction, truth, and self-knowledge.

In the tradition of E.O. Wilson’s Anthill, Invisible Beasts is inspiring, philosophical, and richly detailed fiction grounded by scientific fact and a profound insight into nature. The fantastic creations within its pages—an ancient animal that uses natural cold fusion for energy, a species of vampire bat that can hear when their human host is lying, a continent-sized sponge living under the ice of Antarctica—illuminate the role that all living creatures play in the environment and remind us of what we stand to lose if we fail to recognize our entwined destinies.
Excerpt from Amazon description

This is a hard book to categorize -  short story collection, novel, bestiary, philosophical contemplation and of course magic realism, all could be used in the book's description and all somehow fall short. Some people will have problems with that. But those of us who love magic realism also love the playing with boundaries, with ambiguity. 

Each chapter is a description of a species of invisible animal, narrated by Sophie. These could be cutesy bits of fantasy, but instead in Sharon Muir's hands they are used to explore our human relationship with animals. This could in turn simply be an environmentalist parable, but Ms Muir also uses it to reflect on human nature and indeed what is humanity. 

The subjects of the tales move the enormous, such as the continent-sized sponge, to the minuscule, such as the wonderful Fine Print Rotifers (FPR). The stories are at times laugh-out-loud funny - the FPR eat the ink on printed documents, thus making the fine print unintelligible - and sometimes sad and profound. The story of the invisible dogs falls into the latter category - the dogs in question being so low in canine social order that they choose to be invisible. 

The animals featured in this book may be fictional, but the stories are strengthened considerably by the obvious scientific knowledge that underpins them. That knowledge feeds into the writer's imagination, whilst at the same time making it clear that there is nothing that human beings can imagine that is more remarkable than that which is created in reality by Mother Nature. 

The use of a narrator, Sophie, adds commentary to the stories as well as personalizing them. Through her narration we catch glimpses of Sophie and her family. Sophie is a likable young woman who is struggling with a sense of responsibility for the invisible animals that she can see. 

I spoke earlier of the philosophical nature of this work. To my mind it is influenced by the Renaissance bestiaries and by Renaissance philosophers such as Erasmus. The book hints at its debt to the great Dutchman: the FPR erase the lines with which Erasmus's In Praise of Folly was censored, revealing the truth of what he had written and Sophie's influential granduncle is called Erasmus, who in turn quotes from the poetry of Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus Darwin's poems combined fiction and scientific observation and proposed evolution seventy years before his better-known grandson Charles published his theories. 

At the heart of this book is an exploration of the relationship between imagination and science. "You," laughed my sister, "totally have an imagination. And you care about animals. You know what I think? Without imagination, we can't stop extinction." 

The publisher Bellevue Literary Press' mission statement states that they are devoted to publishing literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences because we believe that science and the humanities are natural companions for understanding the human experience. I shall certainly be watching out for more of their books.

I received this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review

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