Thursday, January 08, 2015

Galápagos Regained by James Morrow, a satirical romp through 19th-century South America

Morrow’s newest cheerfully provocative epic stars the intrepid Chloe Bathurst, who takes a job as Charles Darwin’s assistant zookeeper after getting fired from the Victorian theater. To raise cash to free her indebted father from the workhouse, she decides to enter the Shelley Society’s lucrative contest, which aims to settle the “pesky God question” for good.

When her employer declines to use his unpublished evolutionary theory to grab the winnings for himself, Chloe secretly copies his treatise, secures funding and a ship, and heads for the Galápagos isles to gather evidence for his Tree of Life. As she and her eccentric fellow travelers descend into the Amazon jungle while traversing South America, they encounter many obstacles.

The lofty narrative tone lends period authenticity, and there are some great comic moments as the characters undergo crises of faith. Fans of quest adventures may find the pacing exasperatingly sluggish, as the plot often gets buried under numerous details and digressions. For those fascinated by the meeting point between theology and science, though, it should be a rewarding expedition.

Galápagos Regained was published this week in hardcover by St. Martin's (496pp, $27.99).  This review first appeared in Booklist's December 15th issue.

Some notes:

- I loved James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder, which (like this one) is a picaresque adventure novel about a woman's quest. It's set in Restoration England and 18th-century America and takes on the themes of bigotry and superstition during the age of witch-hunting.  From the first sentence ("May I speak candidly, fleshling, one rational creature to another, myself a book and you a reader?" it's narrated by the Principia Mathematica, you see), I was captured by the writing, humor, and originality.  Definitely recommended.  I reviewed it for Booklist in 2006; it was my first starred review for them.

- Galápagos Regained started out promisingly for me as well.  The scenes on Darwin's estate in England are terrific, and the author's wit is as sharp and clever as always, but other parts were, well, simply too long and detailed.  Reviews are mixed; Kirkus wasn't keen, Library Journal loved it, and Publishers Weekly admired its sense of fun but also said it was overlong.  I cautiously recommend it and would be interested to hear what others think, if you decide to read it.


  1. Sounds quite interesting, I'm attracted to 'satirical romps'.

    1. Me, too, generally - it isn't the usual type of historical fiction, for sure :) Satire is Morrow's specialty, especially religious satire, though most of his books are science fiction - or speculative fiction may be a better term. I've read a few of those as well, but it's been a while.

  2. I'm not sure this one is for me, but I do have The Last Witchfinder on my shelf waiting to be read and your post has reminded me that I shouldn't put off reading it anymore.

    1. It is good but took me a while to read - so you may want to set a chunk of time aside :)