- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

Charles Darwin is very much with us these days. The place of his work in school science curricula again controversial as it was 80 years ago, his face has been on the cover of newsmagazines, his life and work are currently the subject of a major exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. So it is not surprising that Darwin should be given “The Da Vinci Code” treatment—turned into the subject of a historical novel with a mystery at its center. Think about it — do we really know what happened on the five- year-long voyage of H.M.S. Beagle?

Trying to answer that question in John Darnton’s The Darwin Conspiracy (Knopf, $24.95, 303 pages), are a young anthropologist named Hugh Kellem and a biologist, Beth Dulcimer, who meet on a Galapagos island where both are doing scientific research on Darwin and who then reconnect back in London as each takes his work in an unexpected direction.

Their story parallels a retelling of Darwin’s life, from his frantic pleading with his father to allow him, a dyspeptic, seemingly aimless twenty-two year old, to sail on the Beagle’s “voyage of discovery,” (as it was being called), to the five years of the trip, to his cantankerous, illness-plagued old age. The older Darwin is seen through the eyes of a third major figure in the book, his curious and observant daughter, Lizzie.

The complex plot moves along briskly, suggesting as it goes interesting issues of the relationship between science and faith, conveying Darwin’s own sense of the enormity of the conclusions he was drawing from his observations and reaching an ingenious climax.

Sticklers for plausibility may find it hard to accept the ease with which the amateur historians, Hugh and Beth, find previously unknown letters fluttering from the pages of books, stashes of significant correspondence in the attics of strangers willing to part with them, librarians ready to stretch the rules, diaries no one has previously discovered or read.

And readers with a bent for history may find that this book, like much historical fiction, entertains but also makes one long for the facts. If we do not know everything that occurred on the Beagle’s trip, what DO we know about what actually happened?

“The Darwin Conspiracy” is an intriguing book that may send some readers straight to the Encyclopedia Brittannica, the library or Google.

Gail Godwin’s Queen of the Underworld (Random House, $24.95, 336 pages) is an easy, breezy read about the firstweek at work of an achingly ambitious and self-absorbed young newspaper reporter, Emma Gant. The story bears more than a passing resemblance to Ms. Godwin’s own biography — she too graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1959 and headed immediately to a job as a newspaper reporter in Miami, she too was filled with an enormous sense of possibility.

The plan Emma Gant formulates as the train carries her South is to “become a crack journalist in the daytime, building my worldly experience and gaining fluency through the practice of writing to meet deadlines. Then, in the evening and on weekends, I would slip across the border into fiction, searching for characters interesting and strong enough to live out my keenest ambitions. My journalism would support me until I became a famous novelist.” Ms. Godwin, the author of 12 previous novels, has certainly achieved her fictional alter-ego’s goals.

“The Queen of the Underworld” of the book’s title is one of the characters Emma pursues, feeling a sense of spiritual kinship with the former madam who was only 21 when she blew the whistle on the mobster who owned her brothel. “I felt she offered an alternative version of myself,” she thinks while reading about her in back issues of the paper. “To follow her story would be to glimpse what I might have done had I been trapped in Waycross (a poor, small town) in her circumstances.”

What is more interesting than this story, though, is the atmosphere that surrounds Emma in steamy Miami, where she stays in a hotel full of disillusioned refugees from Castro’s Cuba and works in an old-fashioned newsroom with paste pots, typewriters and green-visored editors. The details are all just right.

Also engaging is Emma’s ongoing inner monologue as she wrestles with her huge sense of her own importance (her inner “jealousy animal” makes several appearances), her ravenous hunger for knowledge and experience.

Encountering among the Cubans someone who had met Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War, Emma congratulates herself for being blas enough not to blurt out “You knew Hemingway?” and then thinks, “As for the Spanish Civil War, I would look up who was on which side and what they were fighting for in the morgue’s encyclopedia.” She had just upset one of the paper’s grizzled photographers, a veteran of Korea, by not knowing what the thirty-eighth parallel was. As a portrait of ambitious youth, “The Queen of the Underworld” rings true.

Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24,324 pages)is also a portrait of youth, this one set against a richly textured panorama that extends from the foothills of the Himalayas to New York, Moscow and Cambridge, England and from past to present.

Sai is a young orphan sent at the age of eight to her curmudgeonly grandfather, a former judge educated in England but now living in a run-down mansion in Kimpalong, a mountain village near Nepal, with his cook and his adored dog, Mutt. Sai’s experiences growing up in this austere household in a politically volatile time are paralleled with those of the cook’s son, Biju, who has moved to New York in search of a better life and both are contrasted with the judge’s memories of his studies in England many years before.

The real subject here is the intersection of cultures — the complex relationship of

India with England, the lure of America and the difficult reality of life there for an Indian, the myriad clashes of identities and loyalties within India itself. The subject is evoked not just in the book’s overall thrust but in many closely observed, small episodes.

At her convent school Sai had learned that “cake was better than laddoos, for spoon knife better than hands, sipping the blood of Christ and consuming a wafer of his body was more civilized than garlanding a phallic symbol with marigolds. English was better than Hindi.”

At the Delhi airport Indian travelers returning from the west are now “back in the common soup after deliberate evolution into available niches abroad. There was the yuppie who had taken lessons on wine, those who were still maintaining their culture and going to the temple in Bern, or wherever. The funky Bhangra boy with earring and baggy pants. The hippie who had hit on the fact that you could escape from being a drab immigrant and have a fantastic time as an Indian among the tie-dyed, spout all kinds of Hindu-mantra-Tantara-Mother-Earth-native-peoples-single-energy-organic-Shakti-ganja-crystal-shaman-intuition stuff … .the Indian student bringing back a bright blonde, pretending it was nothing, trying to be easy but every molecule tense and self-conscious …”

The pair of Indian girls making faces behind his back. And then the two Americans “with disdain on their faces” agreeing that “you don’t like to say it, but you have to. Some countries don’t get ahead for a reason …”

The picture painted in “The Inheritance of Loss” is not always pretty but it is vast and vivid, full of tastes and smells, voices and accents, humor and fury. It is a captivating book.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer.

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