James Bradley is a thoughtful, scientific thinker who writes his fears about what is happening in the world around us into careful narratives that are prescient and believable. In his latest novel Ghost Species (Hamish Hamilton Penguin 2020), he presents a subtly terrifying world that changes from one relatively familiar in the first chapters (set perhaps not too far in the future) into a world that gradually deviates from ‘normality’ in every sense, as chaos and disorder disrupt society. But while this world-building is the basis for this story, at its heart is the compelling tale of two women, and their intertwined and ever-changing fates as their world shifts around them.
From the opening pages of this book – from the opening sentences – you know you are in the hands of a master storyteller. Bradley immediately plunges us into a highly literary novel of lush, beautiful words and haunting and lovely phrases, but this is also a very accessible and engaging story that will capture your heart from the start and refuse to let go until the end. I could not put this book down. It is a triumph – a celebration of the natural world, a song of sorrow to what is lost, a hopeful cry towards what might be possible, and a meditation on humanity and how we fit together (or don’t) with our environment.
Imagine a kind of literary Jurassic Park. Scientist Kate Larkin and her partner Jay are invited to join a clandestine project operated by a global corporation with seemingly infinite resources and connections. The aim? To re-engineer the climate and to resurrect extinct species, not just animals relatively recently lost, such as the thylacine, but those lost for centuries, such as woolly mammoths. But this is merely the tip of the increasingly melting iceberg: the even more secret part of the project is to recreate Neanderthals, humans’ long-lost relatives, by using DNA extracted from teeth and bones unearthed by the rapidly thawing planet.
Kate has past trauma of her own related to her notion of family and motherhood. And when the team successfully creates a creature that is not like any other living thing, her instinct takes over, she bonds with the child, Eve, and realises that she must make difficult choices between her professional responsibilities and her human emotions.
As the narrative continues across two decades, and the world’s decline becomes more and more apparent, unavoidable and unsustainable, Kate and Eve must learn to survive amidst mounting obstacles including climate change, capitalism and corporate greed, ambition, prejudice and judgment.
This book questions the very heart of what it is to be human and how we are connected to the natural world. It explores grief and loss, both of emotional connections and of the interconnected landscape which surrounds us. As the planet faces global trauma, so too do the characters face personal trauma. Kate – and Eve, as she grows into adulthood – must contemplate the questions surrounding Eve’s existence; about who and what she is. Do Eve and the other extinct creatures make up the ghost species? Or is it us, modern humans, who are a pale and ethereal copy of what came before?
Readers who enjoyed the scientific imagination of Melissa Ferguson’s The Shining Wall will find much that resonates in this novel.
Ghost Species is an ethical quandary, a scientific exploration, a timely warning, a love song to the natural world, a deeply original story that features unforgettable characters who will move you, thrill you, endear you to them, and compel you to care about what happens to them. It will make you consider the choices we have made, and those we have left to make. Do we have the right to alter the landscape? The fauna? Ourselves? What if it is done in order to enhance our environment? But then what if something goes wrong, or events take an unexpected turn? How does our responsibility change? Teetering on the edge of catastrophe, this novel sweeps us away into a morally ambiguous maelstrom, from which we might never recover. And always, underneath, is that universal yearning for connection.