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by Neil Cross
Simon & Schuster, August 2007
320 pages
11.99 GBP
ISBN: 0743263758

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I can't say that lighthearted or uplifting are descriptions that could be appropriately applied to NATURAL HISTORY by Neil Cross, but it's certainly an interesting work with the sort of conclusion that had me thinking about it for several days after I had read other books.

The narrative begins with the death of Rue, an old ape, once an abused performer in a travelling circus but more latterly an inhabitant of Monkeyland. Patrick, part proprietor of the enterprise, had anthropomorphised her to the extent of thinking of her as "wise." Rue had died as a result of eating poisoned food and Patrick attributes the death of the favourite to the activity of kids.

The tale jumps around in time from the present to the past (sometimes confusingly) to the time when Patrick was a journalist who interviews PhD student Jane Campbell, the woman he later marries. It jumps around geographically, too. The couple's children, Charlie and Jo, are born in Africa. The family returns to England and Jane, by now a television personality, thinks they can turn around the fortunes of the ailing Monkeyland.

While the murder of Rue opens the book, it is treated simply as an incident, rather than the excuse for an investigation and a framework for the entire narrative. Instead, the whole seems to be just an examination of the life of the family. The most intense part of the drama and the resolution of the mystery doesn't come until the end of the novel. "Shock" is quite a good description of that revelation.

The characterisation in this book is very well done. Despite the surprises, it is possible to re-read passages and find the seeds of later disclosures. John Nately, Jo's tutor, is an especially charming invention.

Interest is enhanced by the inclusion of the Hale Bopp comet and is certainly not lessened by Patrick's sighting of a big cat, possibly a panther, roaming the Devonshire landscape.

This is an intelligently written, very engaging work. I enjoyed the calmness of the narrative, which tended to make the ultimate resolution all the more dramatic.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, October 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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