The Evolutionist by Avi  Sirlin (published by Aurora Metro Books) is a fascinating and exciting novel about one of the nineteenth century’s most outstanding personalities, the explorer and scientist Alfred Russel Wallace. Sirlin’s objective was  “to remain heedful of historical fact while approaching the story imaginatively” and he has created a convincing portrait of Wallace and his times.

Beyond the major personalities, whom Sirlin approaches with insight, there is a host of minor characters who help bring life to the book. In the emotionally charged courtroom incident concerning the trial of the medium Henry Slade, where Wallace appeared as a witness, they add humour and vitality to the depiction of law as a game played out according to its own rules – a sad and sempiternal fact, the poignancy of which is undoubtedly enhanced by Sirlin’s experiences as a lawyer. The fictitious tavern scene which follows the courtroom episode is full of such characters, and they act as an effective foil to the discussion between Wallace and Darwin which takes place there, in which the complex relationship between the two is expounded both faithfully and sympathetically. The machinations of the fictional “composite character” of Ramsay Newcastle in the novel help to explain some of that complexity, and at the same time Newcastle introduces the further complication of a triangle in human relationships, where a third party has totally different relationships with the other two, and they to him, which inevitably impinges on all of them.

The book’s subtitle, The Strange Tale of Alfred Russel Wallace, is an invitation into a story which is indeed unusual in many ways – not least because it is inconceivable that it could happen today. Wallace’s perception, at the end of the book, that “great men of science were forever impressed by clear boundaries” is even truer now, when specialisation has become the norm, and where a self-educated man of Wallace’s polymathic abilities would find himself even less acceptable. Were Sirlin’s Wallace alive today, in addition to seeing “the future of the English countryside writ in the banality of ever-expanding urban houses” he might also see the loss of the ideal of academic amateurism together with the politicisation of education as resulting in the groves of Academe being turned into greenfield sites.

My criticisms of the book are few and insignificant. One or two maps charting Wallace’s travels would be helpful, as would a chronology, which would at the very least set the story in relation to Wallace’s birth and his death thirty-seven years after the end of the novel. The gap is a significant one, and one wonders whether some indication of what took place in those years should have been introduced. However, in all works of art, whether a novel or a piece of sculpture, the author must circumscribe his work in terms of its form, and perhaps Sirlin is correct to end where he does. It could of course be  argued that a chronology is unnecessary (except in the broadest terms of birth and death) given the use of date and place as chapter headings. But then it would be helpful to have a list of contents to enable one to return to a particular point in the time-line. It would also, sometimes, help to have a little further information in the chapter headings.  I am not sure that everyone entering on chapter 3 would be sufficiently conscious of the dates thus far to realize immediately that what is presented is a flash-back. Similarly, between chapters 21 and 22 there is an unusual gap of eleven years which I think is important, but it is easily missed.

In summary, Avi Sirlin has produced an enjoyable and thought-provoking work which should thankfully introduce a remarkable (yet remarkably unknown) scientific giant to a wider audience.

Newsletter : Alfred Russel Wallace