Tobias Phelps is a foundling, deposited as a very new baby on the altar in a church under the care of Parson Phelps in the village of Thunder Spit on the Northumbrian coast of England. Parson Phelps, mistaking the baby boy for a piglet at first, accepts him as a gift from God to himself and his wife, childless after many years. Tobias is an extraordinarily hairy infant, and he has suffered a serious wound to his coccyx, but the warm-hearted and grateful Phelpses take him to their bosoms and rear the foundling as their own. For five years he does not speak, but upon his fifth birthday, moved by the extraordinary vision of the cake baked for him by Mrs. Phelps, he utters his first words: “What a delicious-looking cake. . . . Please, dear Mother, would you kindly be so good as to cut me a slice?” From these and other hints it is soon clear that the author is an unusual talent, for this first novel, covering 152 years, weaves together in a fanciful fashion a host of themes as disparate as British veterinary practices, the voyage of the Beagle, religious reaction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), the questions of cross-species reproduction, human fertility in the postmodern world, vegetarianism, and love.
Tobias, ever the outsider, the other, in the tiny village of Thunder Spit is a foundling, a redhead who “smells different,” whose feet are oddly shaped with their great toes nearly perpendicular to the foot. He finds in the sea his constant companion, a huge toybox ever spewing forth new miracles for his delight. His father, the good Parson Phelps, calls the treasures Tobias brings home to him “God’s doodlings.” Phelps believes that “molluscs and other sea-creatures were drawn from the margins of the Lord’s great sketchbook, in which the masterpiece was man.” Thus, Jensen sets the scene for her whimsical treatment of many of the great cultural themes of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the natural world and its multitude of species, their origins, the great debate between creationism and evolution, the consequences of this debate for humanity struggling to make sense of life, Victorian (and postmodern?) ideas of man’s hegemony. She also asks some profound questions when sketching a vision of mid-nineteenth century British life as vividly as Dickens, all the while alluding to a host of nineteenth century writers. Chapters are set in the same locale 150 years later, as the descendants of the nineteenth century villagers wrestle with their own questions about the meaning of life. The parsonage and church are long since redundant and have been turned into private dwellings, and even the configuration of Thunder Spit itself has changed by the filling in of the estuary.
A crisis faces these twenty-first century Thunder Spitters and, indeed, all England. For mysterious reasons, no British female has been fertile since the turn of the millennium. The British, this proud race, once the rulers of the world, now appear to be descending into extinction. Thus, while secularism, televised sports, pub life, the world of commerce, courtship, and copulation all proceed apace in 2006, with various fads and interminable discussions about causes and consequences, humanity—the British form at any rate—apparently has reached an evolutionary dead end. Jensen asks what if? What if the fate of the species rests in genetic material of a copulation that occurred in an Ark sent to collect samples of as many species as possible so that they could be killed, mounted with their genitals removed, covered with Victorian pantaloons, and exhibited as an example of humanity’s supremacy, the Victorian rage for Crystal Palace exhibitions perhaps being the key here? Weaving together various strands, the novel offers a surprising answer.
Jensen’s style is lively, marvelously eclectic, full of sly allusions to many of the standard nineteenth century authors. She provides such delightful forays into magical realism as the funeral of the Laudanum Empress, described by the empress herself to Abbie Ball, her descendant, 150 years later. Accidentally poisoned by Violet, Charlotte Scrapie, the Laudanum Empress,
had long been concerned with a ceremony of the more gloomy variety, involving not white lace, but black. The happy hours she had spent preparing for this day! Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust! Ding-dong, loud and long and tragic may the bells toll! A time to live, a time to die, a time to love, a time to hate, a time to bawl your eyes out and blow long and hard into a big black hanky! “It was a marvelous funeral,” bragged the Laudanum Empress to Abbie Ball, a hundred and fifty years later. “Far be it from me to boast, but it was certainly one of the most moving occasions I have ever attended.”
It is also the occasion for Violet’s turning vegetarian out of guilt (misplaced we learn later) over having poisoned “my own mother.” Violet Scrapie, from her earliest childhood, had been a creature of ample proportions....