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BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Species by James Bradley

| 18 June 2020 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Species by James Bradley

Penguin | Hamish Hamilton
April 2020
Paperback $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Fiction / Speculative Fiction / Climate Fiction

80% Rocking

An exquisitely beautiful and deeply affecting exploration of connection and loss in an age of planetary trauma.

In the night, she wakes. Something has woken her but she does not know what: all week she has felt time collapsing, the past bleeding into the present, the future already here. She sits up, looks around. Through the window the lights by the road have gone out. There is an audible click, and the house falls silent, the fridge spinning down. And just like that the world is over.

When scientist Kate Larkin joins a secretive project to re-engineer the climate by resurrecting extinct species, she becomes enmeshed in another, even more clandestine program to recreate our long-lost relatives, the Neanderthals. But when the first of the children, a girl called Eve, is born, Kate finds herself torn between her duties as a scientist and her urge to protect their time-lost creation.

Yet it is not these differences that strike Kate most forcefully, but her fragility, the wonder of her. She is them but not them, human but not human, extinct yet somehow here, in the world. But most of all she seems to embody a kind of possibility, something by dizzying and terrifying to contemplate, her presence in the world changing everything. And nothing.

Set against the backdrop of hastening climate catastrophe, Ghost Species is an exquisitely beautiful and deeply affecting exploration of connection and loss in an age of planetary trauma. For as Eve grows to adulthood she and Kate must face the question of who and what she is. Is she natural or artificial? Human or non-human? And perhaps most importantly, as civilisation unravels around them, is Eve the ghost species, or are we?
Thrillingly original, Ghost Species is embedded with a deep love and understanding of the natural world.

After that she seeks out other movies, not just about cavemen but about robots and monsters and patchwork people, all the uncanny golems of the Gothic imagination. Across that winter and into the summer she watches everything she can find, looking for guidance in films: Frankenstein, Splice, Blade Runner. Every time the story is the same: the thing created is monstrous but also tragic, its desire for life a violation of the natural order.



Bradley has done it again, delivering a novel of rather epic climate-fiction scope in under 300 pages – we’ve seen his skill in this scene before, in particular with his novel Clade in 2015.

Where Clade examined global warming and planetary trauma from the point of view of many generations within one family, Ghost Species takes place right towards the end of life as we know it, in the few short decades around when the saving of the planet passes its tipping point, and things start to go quickly, drastically wrong. With this focused window of time, we have a dedicated cast of characters to whom we can become attached, for whom we want the best possible outcome… even as we see the ways in which their world, our world, is going down hill.

The examination of the way things were going downhill within this novel mainly served as a backdrop, informative, but not all we’re holding on for. In this way, the novel makes readers sit up and pay attention to the fact that they need to do a better job for the planet, but without feeling as though they’re being goaded into it or info-dumped all over. 

Each week brings worse news about the hastening changes in the north, images of sinkholes and rivers collapsing through the earth, of the melting corpses of ancient animals rising from the ground, as if the past is intruding, ghostlike and uncanny, into the present, and time is hastening, hastening, hastening.

The main focus of the story is Eve – the how of her existence, and then snapshots of different stages in her life. Kate, acting as her mother, frequently examines ways in which a young Eve develops, comparing her abilities to those of a more regular “sapient” nature, and worries about how she will struggle after the people who created her are no more.

Eve is not an experiment, she is a conscious being, she deserves the right to find her own path, to be her own person. She deserves love, not just people hired to care for her. But more than that, she deserves to grow up on her own terms, unburdened by other people’s expectations to discover what she is for herself.

As Eve moves into the role of narration, we get to see how she sees the world and people around her, and how she struggles with certain ideas, such as the duplicity and voilence which are so rampant with homo sapiens. 

What made her behave that way, what dark violence made it possible to give in to her anger like that, to take such pleasure in destruction? She has read enough to know this violence is part of what makes her mother’s species what they are, that it is part of what happened to her own. The desire to dominate, to kill, to give in to their most primal urges infects human society, disfiguring it at every level. Even the fires she can smell, the disruption of the forest can be seen as an expression of that same violence, enacted on a planetary scale. Yet until now she had not realised it was there in her, that she was capable of such unchecked aggression. Is it possible she is not only no better but actually worse? Is it possible she is indeed a monster? And if she is, what does that mean?

The difficulty for Eve is that she’s not only a girl coming of age in strange times, but where most people coming of age feel like no-one understands them properly, Eve is far more likely to be correct with these worries. 

This is a story about coming of age, motherhood, biological engineering, and the end of the world as we know it. Reading this novel during Covid Lockdown was quite the interesting experience – as our planet was starting to show signs of slight and superficial improvement due to the temporary reduction of pollution, Eve’s version of our own world, set in Tasmania no less, was really starting to rock and buck to remove those blasted humans from its back. It was eerie at times to watch a proper disaster unfold and see how people were buying things out (not toilet paper, as far as we know, but prescriptions for sure) in a way that very accurately reflects how our world has been lately.

‘It’s over,’ he says one day.
‘What is?’ Eve asks.
‘The government. The world. All of it. We need to be ready.’
‘I don’t know what that means,’ Eve says.
‘Nobody does,’ Lukas says. ‘That’s part of the problem.’





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