Sunday, January 22, 2017

Love And The Platypus by Nicholas Drayson

This post contains spoilers. 



Love And The Platypus by Nicholas Drayson is a historical novel. It is based on real events. Its main character, William Caldwell, was the real life zoologist who ultimately determined that platypuses lay eggs. This is a quirky, out of the box book that works on several levels.

Set on 1883, it is the story of Caldwell’s expedition to Australia to study the mysterious mammal and to determine if the creature truly does lay eggs. Along the way, the protagonist encounters a host of characters. Among them is Ettie Brown, a blind woman who turns out to be a romantic interest for Caldwell.  Mary Brown is Ettie’s adapted sister who is of Indigenous Australian descent. Ben Fuller is a local outdoorsman who initially seems benign but eventually shows himself to be malicious. 

The early part of the book takes the tone of a light adventure with romantic touches. As the narrative progresses however, this playful mood becomes intertwined with some very dark developments. 

The novel is full of observations relating to the natural world, zoology, evolution as well as animal and plant reproduction. There are multiple passages in the book that depict natural processes, often involving reproduction and often involving references to Charles Darwin or evolution. 

Caldwell is a science and nature enthusiast. He sees great wonder in the natural world. He is a proponent of Darwin as well as the theory of natural selection. 

This book operates on multiple levels. On the surface, and for many pages, it is charming travelogue - like account of a scientific expedition. A little romance is thrown in as are a host of likeable characters. Simultaneous to this lighter fare is an exploration of a natural world and its wonders. The fact that the animals and plants encountered are driven by evolution and reproduction is highlighted. There is an odd symmetry between the book’s many observations of reproduction in the natural world, and the budding romance between Caldwell and Ettie.

However, there is something terribly dark going on. In its quest for knowledge about the natural world, Caldwell’s expedition is slaughtering hundreds of animals, including many Platypuses. The incongruity of all this becomes more and more apparent as the story progresses. This is illustrated in the below passage about Caldwell’s observation of a bird that is then shot. 

“another piece of Rainbow detached itself from a branch high above William and glided towards him on sharp triangular wings. As it banked and turned William could see blues, greens, oranges and yellows…The bird snatched a flying termite from the air with a beak like a pair of fine curved forceps and returned to its perch. Now William could see a long tail and a face masked like a dancer at a fancy – dress ball. The bird tossed the insect back into its throat and immediately flew off, upwards this time, to catch another. William could here the click as the two half’s of its beak snapped together. But before it could regain its perch there was a much louder bang. The beautiful bird fell from the air in a fumble of feathers, and William turned to see Ben Fuller lowering his gun… William was finding it difficult to think of the right words to speak. Only moments ago the bird had been a living miracle of light and color. Now it was a bundle of dead feathers in Ben Fuller’s hands.”

Even worse, the past tragedies of The Brown sisters are very slowly revealed in horrifying detail. Mary’s entire family was brutally murdered by white settlers. Her mother was raped. Ettie’s mother was infected by syphilis that Ettie now carries. Ben Fuller is discovered to be a murderer and a rapist and is now further menacing the Brown women.

The incongruity between different parts of this book is striking.  What is one to make of this? Many of The charming and humorous passages in this book seem genuine and continue to the end.  The wonder expressed at the natural world also is depicted in a sincere way. Yet the horrors that lurk beneath it all are all too real.

I think that Drayson is trying to portray world a where there is a lot of good and joy to be found. However that good and joy exists simultaneously with horrible things. The natural world is a place of wonder where truth, and sometimes wisdom, can be found. Yet, we are reminded that parallel to the good is also malevolence. Much of this evil is deeply ingrained in our belief systems and culture. Our quest for knowledge and our enthusiasm for science is often tied to the destruction of the environment and to cruelty. Underneath our civilization, despite its good points, is something barbaric. There is violent streak that manifests itself in racism, brutality and murder.

Drayson has packed a lot onto this book. Its contrasts are some ways disorientating. It is at times charming and full of wonder. At other times it is shocking. In the end, I found to be an accurate depiction of the real world and its contradictions. I recommend this to anyone who likes original and quirky stories that try to dig into the nature of people, science and culture. 


36 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

quite a contrast to your last post, one might say... in general, human nature is upsetting to the point that i wouldn't read this book. i guess i live in a fantasy world, rather, would like to... it did remind me of the wonderful Patrick o'Brien series re Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin... especially when Maturin was stung by a platypus when he dove into a pond to try to catch it... he almost died in the book and i guess they can be rather dangerous... i don't remember which volume it was, one of the middle ones, i think... a bit of getting one's own back, there...

Caroline said...

I thought I would love this too, especially when you wrote it read like a travelogue but then came the part about the slaughtering of the animals. I just can't deal with that.
Like Muddpuddle, I was reminded of Patrick O'Brien.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - This book was actually given to me by an online friend but it was right up my ally. It has an interesting plot and characters and incorporates thought proving themes.

I have not read The Aubrey–Maturin series but I would like to. I understand that The Platypus sting can be severe.

Animal cruelty bothers me a lot and I usually shy away from books that incorporate it. I managed this one however. Except for the passage where the bird was shot, the killing of the animals was not usually described.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Please see my above comment to Mudpuddle. I usually never read about such things. As the actual acts were not explicit here I was able to make it through. Though I also avoid much of that stuff, I think that it is important that authors illustrate just how bad people can be.

Suko said...

Love and the Platypus is new to me, Brian Joseph. It does sound fascinating, a study of nature and survival, of joys and horrors. Excellent commentary! I will keep Drayson's book in mind for future reading.

Violet said...

I've only read Drayson's A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, which I liked a lot. I think that maybe he has a bit more of a "kitchen sink" approach with Love and the Platypus, throwing in all the historical tropes and stirring them about.

Australian history is a very contested space, and the hideous treatment of Indigenous people is still strongly denied by many. I'd be more concerned about the genocide and rape than I would be about the killing of animals and birds, if I ever get around to reading the book. But, that's what naturalists did, including Darwin. They had such a thirst to acquire "specimens" from the antipodes. Naturalists also "collected" Indigenous people's heads and other body parts from Australia, and their descendants are still trying to get many of them (and sacred artefacts) back from museums in Europe.

baili said...

thank you so much for giving details about this very interesting plot of this book .
seems brilliant to me and worth reading!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Drayson did emphasize the crimes against humans more then those against nature. With that, he built a strong up an effective critique of society by exploring both.

I have heard a lot about the terrible treatment of Indigenous people, I did not know that they were folks trying to deny it. I also did not know about the collecting of human heads and the aftermath. That is horrifying.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - It seems that Drayson is popular in Australia, but not so much elsewhere. If you read this, I would love to know what you thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - This book was definitely worth the reads.

James said...

This book is new to me. Thanks for reading and reviewing it. It sounds fascinating with an interesting narrative of both nature and man. I will add Drayson's book to my list for future reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Drayson seems to be popular in literary circles in Australia. Outside of which he is not as well known.


I would love to know what you thought if you read it.

thecuecard said...

Interesting. I had not heard of this novel before. But it's seems a bit like the Voyage of the Beagle meets the Heart of Darkness. Science & nature collides with very dark elements. The poor platypus. What did they ever do?

Brian Joseph said...

"Voyage of the Beagle meets the Heart of Darkness." - I love that! There is some truth to that. But there are a lot of genuinely positive parts to this book.

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Much of what you write in your fine review sends me back to one of my problems with historical novels: what is historical v. what is fiction? Embedded within that problem is the question: what is the author's "agenda" for appropriating history and embossing it with fiction? In any case, your focus on the darker aspects of the novel sends me running away from reading it. I guess I'm not in the mood these days for the darker side of life. Thank you, though, for your fine review.

Tracy Terry said...

Yeah! One of the few books we have in common.

A book I read pre Pen and Paper. Re-reading my then paper notes I was interested that I'd noted 'proof that good can and does exist simultaneously alongside the, well, not so good/downright horrendous.

Kathy's Corner said...

Very fine review. Darkness doesn't bother me in a novel as long as the author gives me characters I can root for as well and I sense William Caldwell and Ettie Brown are two such people and that their romance shows that there is beauty in the world as well. I like historical novels and even better when the author does his homework on the period he's writing about and it sounds like Drayson did that.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks R.T. - I have the same issues with Historical Fiction as you do. My solution was to mostly ignore the fact that this book was. During my reading I almost forgot that this was intended to be other then completely fictional. I read a little bit about the real Caldwell after I read it. I almost forgot to mention the fact in my commentary!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy.

I was not sure if anyone I knew have read this book. It is interesting that we had similar comments about it. Great minds thing alike!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - Caldwell is a very likable protagonist, He shows a little flaws as he only slowly realizes the destruction that he is doing to wildlife.

Drayson is also a zoologist so I think that he got the science part right.

JaneGS said...

Sounds like a book I would really like, for the travelogue parts as well as the darker parts of the story. Excellent review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane. The travelogue parts were sincere as well as the darker parts.

I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

Sharon Henning said...

Hi Brian! As always you give an excellent review that makes me feel well-informed as to the contents of the book. It poses so many questions that one would like to ask.

In this case, your review allows me to pass this book up. I'm a little tired of the "evil white colonial invaders". In fact I have in line to read a book by French philosopher Pascal Bruckner titled The Tyranny of Guilt where, on the one hand, he admits there's no shortage of crimes committed by Western countries, on the other hand, Bruckner believes that "white guilt" has gone too far. I look forward to seeing what he has to say.

Ironically, people have used Darwin to support hierarchies of value. If you are more evolved you have more value. That is how people justified slavery in America. Also, the fittest survive and the weaker do not. To me, this is simply taking Darwin to the logical conclusion although I know others disagree with me.

As far as I'm concerned the fossil record is lacking in transitory fossils. I mean the millions and millions of fossils that should be available showing creatures with part of an arm or part of an eye or a creature that is almost a platypus.

Platypuses are so cute! Sorry; had to interject that.

But regardless of origins, how can one not look at our world, nature, animals, what have you and not be filled with awe?

You know, I also have Darwin's Origin of Species on my shelf. I have got to get that out and read it.

Thanks again for making me think, Brian. Have a great week. Hope it's not too cold up there. It's freezing 50 degrees here. Brrrr.

Stefanie said...

It does indeed sound like a lot gets packed in! Seems like a book I might enjoy though so I will add it to my TBR and hope for the best!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

I agree with that there is something out of balance in regards to the phenomena referred to as White Guilt. This is a very talked about topic with folks who discuss social issues. This is one of the drivers of what I referred to in my post on Islam. In its excessive form, folks on the far left will minimize violence when it is committed by oppressed groups, demonizing so called "privileged people", attacks on classic literature and art, blaming all of today's ills on Colonialism, etc. The Right has criticized this for years, In the last few years a split has developed on the Left on this issue.

With all that, terrible things have been done in the past and there is injustice and wrongs in the world now. Previous injustices do have some impact on today’s world. In the end, I believe in moderate, approach to these issues. I think that this book actually took that moderate approach. I would like to read the Bruckner book.

In my opinion evolution is close to irrefutable. But I agree, one does not have to belivve in the theory to appreciate the wonder of it all.


We are in the upper 30s and 40s here in New York. It has been mostly like this for weeks but we feel this to me mild winter!

Platypuses are cute!

Have great weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - If you read this, I would love to know what you think.

The Reader's Tales said...

Brian this is a very fine review (for a change... hahaha... just kidding).
You know, I had not heard of this novel before. It truly seems fascinating, I love quirky stories, so will add to my LONG list.
Have a great weekend ahead :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi A Reader's Tales - I would love to know what you thought is you read this.

Maria Behar said...

GREAT commentary as usual, Brian!

This novel certainly does present several contradictions, which, as you say, mirror those to be found in real life. To be honest, I don't think this book would be my cup of tea. That passage with the beautiful bird that was subsequently killed was so depressing....

As you have pointed out, there's something barbaric in human nature. It's something that, inexplicably, rears its ugly head whenever something pure, good, and beautiful manifests. This something barbaric seems to feel somehow THREATENED by these beautiful, innocent things, and so, must destroy them....

I might be more interested in the scientific aspects of this book. However, I would have to wade through the more unpleasant parts. The author is sneaky, in a way, too, in that he entices the reader with the lighter, romantic, humorous parts, only to introduce the darker elements later on.

Thanks for your insightful analysis!! Hope you have a wonderful weekend!! :) :) :)

Deepika Ramesh said...

This is an interesting post. Thank you, Brian. I particularly loved the cover. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Some of the bad things in this book are hard to take. In total however, there are more pages devoted to positive events then negative.

I like your description of Drayson being sneaky.


Have great weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Deepika. I also love the cover.

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, this one sounds really good. I'm adding it to my wishlist. I like quirky stories and that evolution and science are tied in here makes this sound really interesting. It looks like the author was able to balance light topics with dark ones here. Great post as always. Hope you are enjoying your weekend.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The mix and light and dark at times seemed odd, but in the end it worked for me.

If you read this, I would love to know what you thought.

Have a great Sunday!

HKatz said...

I've wondered about this mix of wonder and horror reading older traveler accounts (like what 19th century travelers would record when they went by ship to different parts of the world). Sometimes their descriptions skim lightly over horrifying things... like they'll make charming portrayals of a marketplace, and just happen to mention in passing some miserable brutalized beggars... and then on to the next charming observation. I guess people still do things like that today too when reporting on travels.

I'm interested in how the author manages to mix these elements - for that alone I'd read this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I wonder if Drayson read some of those old accounts. Perhaps they have him ideas for this book.