Book review: Ghost Species by James Bradley

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

As the dominant species on the ever-worsening earth block, Homo Sapiens has developed quite the existential swagger.

Unchallenged for some 300,000 years, we think we are the be-all and end-all of sentient, kings and queens of all we survey, so mighty and in control that there is nothing we cannot see off or overcome.

But as Ghost Species by James Bradley opens, Homo Sapiens’ claim to have all their sentient shit together is beginning to shake around the margins as rapidly-accelerating climate change begins to upend the idea that we are the last word in custodianship of the world.

So unnerved are some people including David Hucken, tech tycoon and founder of social media juggernaut Gather, that they devote every last morsel of humanity’s ingenuity to challenging what is by any estimation the gravest threat to the supremacy of our rule of the planet in our existence.

Davis’s solution? He plans to de-extinct a slew of species such as mammoth and mastodon, aurochs and other megafauna castoffs and release tem into the tundra landscapes of Russia and Canada to reverse the decline of those grassland ecosystems which play a key role in sequestering carbon, the build-up of which plays a key role in the hastening of global warming.

“Kate doesn’t reply. Instead she watches Jay, suddenly aware of how totally he seems to have given himself over to Davis’s charm, the eagerness with which he responds to the younger man’s promptings. She can already sense the pull of this thing, the way the possibility is feeding upon itself, expanding into the world like a genie leaving its bottle. Or a contagion.” (P. 29)

But that is not all he has planned.

The most arrogant of men in a species not lacking in that least attractive of qualities, Davis is also rearranging the genes of methane-capturing plants to increased their efficiency, and most importantly for the narrative Ghost Species, which is both brilliantly intellectual and authentically, groundedly human, bringing back Neanderthals, a species of human which was wiped out by Homo Sapiens some 40,000 years ago as the ascendant species swept into Europe and claimed its self-perceived birthright.

A secret side project of Davis’s far more public and grander schemes to save the world, the re-birth of the Neanderthal species is overseen by husband and wife Jay Gunasekera and Kate Larkin, both leaders in their respective fields who are intrigued by the tech tycoon’s plans to wind back humanity’s damaging effects on a planet that prove far too susceptible to our arrogant assumptions that all would be well, come what may.

Despite Kate’s misgivings about playing god – Jay is far more predisposed to the idea that if we can do it why shouldn’t we? – the first Neanderthal is born, a seismic achievement that becomes far more than just another scientific achievement for Kate.

Scarred by a childhood of errant, often absent love and profound neglect by her mother, Kate finds herself becoming less and less scientifically objective as Eve begins to grow, her stymied and grief-laden attempt to become a mother impelling her to embark on a course that will not only profoundly re-shape her life and that of Eve’s but also that of David’s overweening scheme to bring back Neanderthals.

James Bradley (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

The great appeal of Ghost Species, and the thing that makes it such a compelling, affecting read is constantly questions whether Homo Sapiens is really as in control of the earth as it may think.

For all the great achievements of civilisation, and they are marvellous in their own ways, they have come at the expense of the natural world for which the novel has a great and enduring love.

But even more than a love letter to the natural world, and as love letters go this one is profoundly poignant and emotionally arresting, Ghost Species is a deeply moving rumination on love, loss and belonging.

For both Kate and Eve, these questions are far from academic, lying at the very heart as they do of what their identity, their sense of self and place and their role in the world, a world which is, by the way, changing out of all recognition on a yearly basis.

The question that over-arches all of these searingly introspective existential explorations is what does it mean to belong, not simply to another person but to the planet?

Can we run roughshod over a place that is our one and only home with no real consequence or will we find ourselves, as Kate and Homo Sapiens does, staring down the barrel of annihilation?

“There is something numbing about this process, a sense that with each new diminution the world slips further out of alignment. Yet while Jay and Cassie and many of her colleagues feel the same, few of them talk about it, except in the most guarded terms, and out in the street or the supermarket it is as if nothing has changed. Do people not feel it, the way death shadows them? This sense the world is coming apart? This sense they are all a part of it?” (P. 169)

Beyond that, who is actual ghost species of the title – Homo Sapiens which has demonstrated an enduring ability to best all comers or Neanderthals who may not be the pushovers we have often painted them as?

In language that is thoughtful and incisive, and as emotionally resonant as it is intellectually vigorous, Ghost Species is an affectingly beautiful novel that paints the overwhelming facing us now in starkly personal terms.

By doing so, it brings home powerfully the fact that while climate change and the enduring power of civilisation and its possible fall may feel like remote, emotionally barren concepts, far removed the average person’s experience of everyday life, the reality is that they are as intensely personal as they come.

There is no way to divorce who we are as individuals from who we are as a species nor can we truly separate ourselves from the natural world of which we are inextricably a part despite our best efforts to do so.

Within that wider web, it is near impossible to be alone and separate from others, something Kate and Eve discover in the own ways as the deeply engaging narrative gently powers on.

At its heart, Ghost Species is about belonging, of our being part of something greater or bigger than themselves, a passionately nuanced declaration that no one or no species is an island and that to think so imperils not only the whole but also the individuals who may think they will triumph on their own but who ultimately, Neanderthal or Sapiens, need one other in ways that go far beyond science or conscious understanding and which can mean the difference between survival or obliteration.

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