The Hartlepool Monkey
Doubleday. 2008. 336 pages. $9.99 (Kindle)
I seem to have a knack for picking awesome books to read on planes. I’m currently at a conference in Boston, and managed to read this book (and some comps reading) while I was cramped in my sardine chair. I’m very picky about my eighteenth-century books; I know too much about the period for my own good, and as a result, I judge authors when they don’t get the timeline right or if the characterization is wrong. Sean Longley got it all right (and still managed to write an entertaining romp).
This book hits all of my 1790s happy spots. He writes about early botany and “biology,” the French Revolution, and the “Scarlet Pimpernel.” I put everything in heavy quotes because Longley has enough humor to know not to take himself too seriously (something I would like to borrow from his style). Basic summary: French doctor finds a talking monkey in the African forest and brings him back to France. Said Monkey (named Jacques LeSinge) becomes the center of the debate on what makes a human.
Longley deftly handles the philosophical elements of the work. His novel is true to eighteenth century philosophy as well as 21st century posthumanism. The concerns felt so real to me (having spent way too much time reading Hume and Locke and Smith) that I started to wonder whether or not this was a true story. Please don’t hold me accountable to this statement.
My only problem with this book is partly caused by my own reading habits. This is not a book to be read in one sitting. It consists of three parts, told by three different narrators, and the verb tense shifts annoyingly between the three parts. I think I would have been less annoyed by the mechanics of the work if I had let myself savor it over the course of a week, rather than inhaling it in three or four hours. It is definitely a book I want to return to again when I’m less pressed for time-or not stuck in a chair. I would recommend it to anyone; I loved it for its Frenchy wonderfulness and 18th century accuracy, but any lover of historical novels that make you say “hmm” will enjoy this book. One of the best send-ups of my favorite century in recent times.