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.