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Snail tale

Seaside Pleasures by Ann Lingard

Jennifer Rohn 15 January 2006

Compelling: multiple narrators and interlocking human relationships hit the target

Unlike A. S. Byatt, whose science comes across largely as showing off, Lingard’s portrayal is relaxed, natural and rarely gratuitous.

Editor’s note: You can read our interview of the author, former parasitologist Ann Lingard, to find out more about her background, philosophies and SciTalk, her exciting initiative that puts writers in touch with scientists.

When Matt Myers, a young art student at loose ends, decides to spend the summer with his estranged mother, Hazel, living a solitary life in the country, neither is sure what to expect. The pair soon encounter Elizabeth Wilson, a retired malacologist and parasitologist still doing active research in a nearby seaside house, and also stumble across an old book formerly belonging to Anne Church, a Victorian student of natural history.

What do these four characters have in common? Seaside Pleasures is an engaging tale that slowly answers this question. Each of these characters has an independent first-person narrative which is cleverly linked to the others in ways that are not immediately apparent and which unfold in multiple time streams punctuated by various flashbacks. Matt is arguably the central character in this mix of personalities and, though the ‘slacker-youth’ persona (which the author pulls off surprisingly convincingly) automatically makes him the rawest and most unsophisticated of the four voices, his blend of sarcasm and insecurity nevertheless rings true and invites sympathy.

Snails are a unifying theme amongst the various narratives, both scientifically and artistically: Elizabeth and her colleagues are performing research on them and their parasites; Anne Church is a student of the real-life naturalist Philip Henry Gosse; Matt becomes interested in the snails as objects of artistic beauty and inspiration; and Hazel lives in a listed Victorian building clad with an elaborate pattern of shells.

The Victorian thread is an interesting addition; Anne Church turns out to be an ancestor of Matt and Hazel, and her passions – twin yearnings for the married Gosse and for recognition in a man’s world for her scientific contributions – makes compelling reading. The blend of fiction and fact (the distinction between which is rigorously explained in the end notes) works very well, but at the end of the book this thread felt somewhat unbalanced. I would have liked to have seen more of Anne throughout the book, or to have had a second Victorian voice to play off hers.

Despite the fact that science is threaded densely throughout the story, the novel is imbued with the languid sensation of a summer holiday, and it is the various human relationships under the microscope that take precedence. Pairs of opposite concepts are deftly explored: youth and age; male and female ambition; heterosexual and homosexual romance; art and science; solitary existence and familial belonging; life and death. Even the science has its opposites: old, in the guise of the quaint natural science of description, and new, as when molecular biology and computer modeling are brought to bear on the problem.

Snail science has been famously dealt with before, of course, in A. S. Byatt’s The Whistling Woman, which was published in 2002, a year before Seaside Pleasures. Although there are inevitable comparisons to be made, Lingard’s first-hand authority with the subject redeems the coincidence and, unlike Byatt, whose science comes across largely as contrived, pretentious showing off, Lingard’s portrayal is relaxed, natural and rarely gratuitous.

As always, I was particularly interested in the strategies the author used to transmit the science unobtrusively. Lingard here employs several techniques, the most impressive being the use of Matt’s point of view.

While handily ignorant non-scientist characters are relatively common in ‘lab lit’ fiction, to have them as first-person narrators is powerful. Matt was useful for explaining – or at least exposing – scientific opacity in the comfort of his own head. For example, several times during the novel, Matt bears witness to the scientific dialogue of scientist characters. As they toss around phrases like ‘In obtusata this type of intrapopulation polymorphism is the rule’ or ‘if the crypsis is important, I suppose the morph ratios could be maintained by a frequency-dependent selection’, some of Matt’s thoughts serve as signals that we, the reading audience, are not required to actually understand, as when he thinks: ‘I’m only half-listening to the others, but I don’t understand what they’re on about, it’s like they’ve switched to a higher level of language’ or ‘I didn’t like to admit that I hadn't the faintest idea what he was banging on about’. This is helpful, especially as, in a few occasions, the author chose to keep the technical dialogue going for up to a page at a time.

Too much scientific dialogue is risky, as the reader will inevitably skim, but it does allow for verisimilitude, and for the narrator to interject a few interesting observations about the process if not the content, as when Matt thinks, ‘It’s like a dance… Or a game. That’s it, they’re playing a game. Now Roger’s hitting back but I can’t tell if he’s on the ball.’ Although these interjections may seem subtle, a later lengthy technical dialogue scene at London’s Natural History Museum from the point of view of Elizabeth was much harder to follow for Matt’s absence. Still, one feels immersed in a real conversation, and as it was clear that absolute comprehension is optional, such ‘fly on the lab wall’ moments carry their own pleasures. And modern audiences demand such jargon for credibility – watch any forensic police procedural on television and you will be exposed to swathes of incomprehensible jargon that are nevertheless de rigueur in the 21st century.

There turns out to be a subtle downside to employing the layperson’s ignorant viewpoint, however, especially when it’s sarcastic. When Matt thinks that a scientist is ‘banging on’ about something, or a snail is ‘boring’, or describes the technical nature of a scientist’s book collection as ‘all titles that really grab you by the throat’, this purposeful denigration almost disrupts suspension of disbelief; we are aware that the author is a scientist, so allowing her character to bad-mouth science can feel a bit calculating.

Nevertheless, Matt (and the reading audience with him) is consistently won over by curiosity: he appreciates the beauty of the snails and of Elizabeth’s scientific vintage instruments, is entranced by his first look at the parasites, and is able to draw helpful parallels between the science and his own experience, as when he compares parasite behavior to a scene about aliens in The X-Files. Matt is persistent, and some of the science starts to stick, just as his own fledgling artistic ideas begin to take off. But perhaps more importantly, science through his eyes eventually proves to be exciting, and its purveyors, both passionate and refreshingly ordinary.

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