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Book Review: Genus by Jonathan Trigell

Genus by Jonathan Trigell (Corsair; 288 pages; £7.99).


Gretchen Gerbi, an elderly woman who lives in a London apartment complex, busies herself by playing an old video game called “Civilization.”  Gretchen has not gotten far into the game.  Her tribe is still quite primitive.  She knows it is not the way to win the game, but she directs her people to farm and form settlements rather than make war on other tribes.  For Gretchen, Civilization is just a way to pass the time.  She never really succeeds because the game crashes when her power dims.  “After rebooting, it’s like a plague has wiped out half your people,” she laments, “all the achievements and population growth you’ve made since your last save have been lost.”


She sounds like any elderly lady in any city, right?  Did I mention Gretchen keeps a spider with ten-inch mandible fangs and three-foot-long legs who she calls Bojangles?  A spider that spins silk for her that she sells on the side?  Gretchen loves the spider.  She manages an apartment building in London’s King’s Cross (The Kross), a ghetto filled with the Unimproved lower classes.  No, Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore…er, present-day London.


We are in the world of the brilliant and talented novelist Jonathan Trigell.  Trigell, a British author, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 2004, the Waverton Good Read Award, and the inaugural World Book Day Prize in 2008 for his first novel Boy AGenus is his third novel.  In the book, Trigell turns to speculative dystopian fiction set in a future and chilling London.

No one calls “The Kross” King’s Cross anymore since it “sounds antiquated and strange,” Trigell writes.  There is no longer a king, you see.  “Once the royal family began genetically enhancing, the utter absurdity of bloodline head of state became obvious.”


Like Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood, Trigell explores science, medicine, biology, morality, and religion.  New breakthroughs occur everyday.  What was once considered science fiction or pure fantasy actually happens; this is our reality.  Test-tube babies, surrogacy, living to 110 years old, gene therapy, mapping the human genome, selecting a child’s eye color, and even finding out an unborn child’s genetic abnormalities–these are not the stuff of fiction.  They have already happened.


So Trigell’s premise is not so wild then.  In the not-too-distant future, scientists began “improving” people.  A child could be bred for warfare with all of the genes of warriors.  Likewise, a baby could be created to rule over others or to be a scientist.  If a man or woman was unhappy in his or her present circumstances, don’t blame the employer, him or herself, or even the government.  Lay the blame on the parents for not having enough money to give their child a great future.  Because money is what determines one’s future lot in life.  The more your parents pay for you the better your life will be, the better your education, the better your career.  Sex for procreation is outlawed; when it happens, the offspring are “unimproved,” ugly, and scorned.  These inhabit The Kross.


The future is bleak but intriguing in Trigell’s story.  The government has banned religion, as it promotes terrorism.  Opiates are the “opiates of the masses.”  An alcoholic drink called synth and drugs are very popular, as they make the Unimproved forget.


Trigell tells the story from multiple perspectives in suspenseful, alternating chapters, giving us a view into the lives of those Improved and Unimproved.  A few characters stand head and shoulders above the rest of Trigell’s narrators.  Holman, a dwarf, particularly fascinated me.  Holman is an artist with a rather shocking lineage.  His mother, Adele Nicole, was a religious cultist and then a model.  Adele Nicole was the last “Miss Natural” and caught the eye of a very important man.


Another especially interesting character is Crick, Holman’s friend.  Crick once fought in the Caliphate Wars and was injured so badly he is now blind.  He gives us some history of what got England into this in the first place.  Spain, Portugal, North Africa, most of France and Asia, and Arabia all became one.  They became the Caliphate.  Refugees from these war-torn countries fled to England.  Population growth ballooned; terrorism increased exponentially; crime spiked; unemployment shot up; homeless people flooded the streets; wars killed countless English people and drained the economy.  There is a lesson here, Trigell warns from between the lines. Trigell gives a voice to the disenfranchised Unimproved in his book.  They are crying out to be heard.


Meanwhile, there is a serial killer on the loose in The Kross.  A detective is on the trail.  But a deeper, darker force may be at work.  Trigell keeps the surprises coming, and the shocker at the end was one I never saw coming.


Genus is a masterful work of dystopian speculative fiction.  You may not have heard of Trigell, but he definitely deserves your attention.  London will be in the public eye over the next few weeks.  As you watch the 2012 Olympics, think what a future dystopian London might resemble.  Better yet, read Trigell’s Genus for yourself.  But be warned: the future is not pretty.  You can’t help but ask youself: “How good are your genes?”


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Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Random House; 336 pages; $25).


            We tend to take too many things and people for granted in our lives.  Please do not think I am preaching; I, too, am guilty.  Often, our iPhones, iPads, kindles, and other such devices preoccupy our daily routines.  The ping of an incoming message lures us to our screens like nothing else matters; our response to such stimuli is almost Pavlovian.  We tend to tune out anything else that is going on around us.  We forget those most important to us, and for that we are remiss.

We are not promised tomorrow.  In these uncertain times of war and terrorism, we sometimes forget that each day is a miracle.  Just take the events on July 20, 2012, when James Holmes killed twelve people and injured more than fifty others during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.  During this brutal and senseless tragedy, people aided the wounded and pulled them to safety, even when their own lives were in danger.  People banded together.  In the days since the killings, we have heard many stories of bravery and hope despite the ugliness of the act.  Funny how it seems we only become one in the face of a tragedy.

I ask you: If we are not safe in a movie theatre, where are we safe? The bleak answer I came up with was nowhere.  It was a profound and scary realization.

However, during the shootings, I was lucky enough to be in the midst of reading a novel that managed to restore my faith in man.  Although The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is fiction, it can teach us a lot about life.  Harold’s inspirational journey changes his life and those closest to him.  Harold is no superhero; rather, he is an ordinary man who does an extraordinary thing.  We can all learn a lot from him.

Harold Fry is 65 and retired six months ago. He spends most of his time sitting in his chair.  Estranged from his son, Harold has spent a lifetime not questioning and instead being meek and mild.  In other words, Harold is the proper Englishman; he does not believe in rocking the boat.  He and his wife, Maureen, sleep in separate rooms.  Over the years their relationship has deteriorated.  For years, “they had been in a place where language had no significance.  She only had to look at him and she was wrenched to the past.  Small words were exchanged and they were safe.  They hovered over the surface of what could never be said, because that was unfathomable and would never be bridged.”

Then, Harold receives a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old co-worker from twenty years ago.  “It’s—cancer,” Harold tells Maureen.  “Queenie,” he explains, “is writing to say goodbye.”

The news overcomes him.  Harold writes her a note, but it just seems so darn inadequate.  After a life of inaction, Harold is desperate to do something.  What begins as a quick jaunt to mail Queenie’s letter spirals into an unlikely journey of 87 days and 627 miles from Harold’s home in Kingsbridge to Queenie’s hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Harold’s mindset is simple, really.  He believes that as long as he keeps walking, Queenie “must live.”  Harold calls the hospice and begs one of the nuns to give Queenie a message: “Tell her Harold Fry is on his way.  All she has to do is wait.  Because I am going to save her, you see.  I will keep walking and she must keep living.”

You may laugh at Harold at first.  I know I did.  He sets off with just the clothes on his back and he even wears a tie.  No fancy walking shoes for Harold.  He just wears his trusted old yacht shoes.  He has no water bottles or Powerade, no nutrition bars, and no cell phone.  He does not even have that much money!  I did not expect Harold to get very far, honestly, with no supplies and little money.  I kept waiting for someone to murder him actually.

But, over time, I came to believe in Harold, too.  His journey is difficult, though, as all quests must be.  Maureen fails to understand why exactly Harold is undertaking this pilgrimage.  She thinks her husband had an affair with Queenie.

Joyce throws many obstacles in Harold’s path.  Sometimes it seems as if he will never complete his expedition.  His body fails him; his spirit plummets.  Harold endures awful English weather and snickers from those who see an old man walking on the side of the road.

When he tells the people he meets along the way his story, many help him on his quest.  Some provide plasters and tape for his feet; some give him food.  Others give him a bed to sleep on.  A few just listen.  Many encourage him to keep going.  Harold tells them about Queenie, and they, in turn, tell Harold their own stories—uplifting anecdotes of sick loved ones or even accounts of their own struggles in life.  Harold internalizes their chronicles; they actually become a part of him.  Funnily enough, Harold, in a nod to Forrest Gump and Jesus, attracts disciples.  His groupies only end up distracting Harold, though, from his goal.  But only temporarily.

The roadblocks Harold must navigate his way through mirror the obstacles we all must overcome in life.  Like Harold, we must persevere, even when our goals seem impossible.  Harold tells us, “I admit it is an awfully long way to Berwick.  I admit I am wearing the wrong clothes.  And I also admit I have not the training, or the physique, for my walk.”  Harold never gives up, though: “Even when a big part of me is saying I should give up, I can’t.  Even when I don’t want to keep going, I still do it.”  He may falter, he may fall down, but he gets back up again.

Harold keeps his eye on the prize: getting to Queenie.  For Harold, his journey is transformative.  Harold is “beginning again.”  He learns “it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness.”  The world, he realizes, is “made up of people putting one foot in front of the other.”  One of the most profound of Harold’s revelations is this: “everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”  The Harold at the end of this story is not the same Harold we met in the beginning.

Joyce produces a life-affirming story.  The novel is a tribute to her dad, who died of cancer.  This book has Joyce’s “heart in it,” and it shows.

In these uncertain times, we’re lucky to have Harold, an “Everyman” archetype, whose improbable journey fills us with hope and renews our faith in the human spirit.  Harold and those he meets show there is still goodness in people, even when it seems the world is crazy.  Harold goes on a 21st century pilgrimage and he takes us with him.  You will root for this unlikely hero, and you will take a part of him with you.  I guarantee it.


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