November 7, 2012


The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857-1879)
232 pages, The Friday Project
by Harry Karlinsky

Review by J. S. Colley

Note: I received a free copy for review purposes. 

As is so often the case, I fashioned a brilliant review of this book while lying in bed last night. Too bad I didn’t get up and write it down, because I can’t remember a word of it this morning.


But, I’ll give it another go now that I’m fully awake and have two cups of coffee in my system. Here goes (mind you, it won’t be half as brilliant as the one that resided in my head last night):

The title of this book intrigued me. Nothing appeared odd about it at all: inanimate objects do change over time, don’t they? Take, for instance, aircraft. As an example, one might start with the hot air balloon and end with the Curiosity spacecraft. The two couldn’t be more different, yet they both, at their basic function, perform the same task. And don’t antiques develop a patina, a character of their own, by absorbing—or shedding off—atoms over time? That might be stretching the term “evolution” a little, but not as much as Thomas Darwin, the subject of this book, stretches this idea.

The story begins when Harry Karlinsky, the author, starts a research project at Ontario’s London Asylum and happens to come across the surname Darwin. Karlinsky’s curiosity is piqued, and he sets out to learn if the person admitted to the hospital on July 2, 1879 was any relation to the famed naturalist, Charles Darwin. He soon discovers the person noted in the ledgers is, indeed, the last child of Charles and Emma Darwin. Through the personal correspondence between the Darwin family, recorded history, and the asylum records, Karlinsky pulls together the story of Thomas. The reader understands this is a work of fiction from the proclamation printed on the front cover stating it is a novel.

But where does fact end and fiction begin? It is sometimes hard to tell. Replete with charts, sketches, and footnotes, the novel sets the reader on a venture to find out. For someone who loves puzzles, and scavenger hunts, this is an added bonus. I even started to wonder if Mr. Karlinsky was part of the ruse. But, after hard investigation, my conclusion is that he does exist. I could be wrong, and, if I am, then someone went to a lot of trouble to make him appear to be a real person.

Other questions nagged at me; questions I find hard to articulate: Is Karlinsky poking fun at Darwin’s theories, or did he write this story simply for the entertainment factor? Is Karlinsky, a psychiatrist, telling us not to take ourselves too seriously? Is he telling us genius can often be misconstrued as insanity, or vice versa? I find myself wondering why Karlinsky chose to write about this subject. And I’m left with a nagging feeling I should be taking away something more from this novel than I can comprehend at the moment.

For this reason, I’m not sure if the novel was to be taken seriously, or humorously, or perhaps both. I found it both. The most humorous is Thomas’s conviction that if he places two pieces of cutlery on top of one another at night, in the morning they will have joined together to become an entirely unique piece. The saddest aspect of the story is a small miscommunication, a line or two in a letter from a mentor, causes the fictitious Thomas to travel to Canada without first confronting his father over the misunderstanding, which leads the young man to be isolated from his family in a time of need.

I had an affinity with Thomas. I could see myself coming up with some wild idea similar to his and obsessing over it; but, for someone with an underlying propensity, obsession over a quirky idea can easily lead to mental illness, as it does in the case of Thomas. Another reason for Thomas’s apparent mental instability is hinted at when he is introduced by his older brother to the idea that offspring produced by the pairing of close relatives often have defects. Since Charles and Emma are first cousins, this could be a possibility.

The author does a great job of making you believe the “facts.” The documentation and personal correspondence seem very real. But, while I could intuit the human story behind the clinical observations, as a reader, I yearned for the experience of understanding Thomas from a different approach. I would love to read this story as a true novel—a “fictional” historical fiction, if you will.

What bogged me down most was the author’s propensity to use a lot of parenthetical elements in his writing, exactly what one would expect in a clinical paper. This, combined with the ever-intrusive footnotes, created a sort of back-and-forth that brought me out of the story at times. Still, I thought this was an interesting premise cleverly delivered. I could have used less of the clinical and more of the human story, but I appreciate the authenticity the clinical approach lent to the telling. 

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects is definitely a different, quirky, and interesting novel—the kind The Friday Project is known to deliver.

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