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Our Endless Numbered Days, Junk DNA and Exotic England

Best debut novel this year

By Mark Diston, 14 Mar 2015

Page File El Reg bookworm Mark Diston looks the latest from three female authors in the publishing world covering very different areas. Making a very impressive debut in fiction is Claire Fuller's fantastical tale of survival. Nessa Carey explains some of the lesser known, yet fascinating facts of bioscience, and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown takes a look at British culture and its growing diversity.

Our Endless Numbered Days

Claire Fuller is an artist who only began writing aged 40. Our Endless Numbered Days is her debut novel and is a modern day fairy story which tells the tale of eight-year-old Peggy Hillcoat, who is taken away to live in a hut in a German forest by her survivalist father.

The story is told in a matter-of-fact manner, but there is always an underlying fantasist element such as when the father addresses his daughter as a series of fairy story heroines:

“Sleeping Beauty? my father asked, and turned to look at me. “Little Blue Riding Hood? I sat beside him on the log and poked at the fire with a stick. He pulled the balaclava off my head by its ears and flung it behind him toward the tent.

“Rapunzel!” my father exclaimed.”Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” He was suddenly loud as if someone had turned up the volume. There were birds and wind in the trees, and in the distance I could hear the river, a neverending chatter, like a crowd of faraway people.”

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days book cover

Peggy/Punzel’s father tells her that everyone has died and that they are the only two humans left. However the original story takes place in 1976 and is interspersed with a flash forwards to 1985 where a seventeen-year-old Peggy has emerged from the forest and is reunited with her German pianist mother and brother. The tale of her time in the wilderness and how she uncovers her father’s lies and their consequences make up the main storyline of this novel.

And I have to say Our Endless Numbered Days is an excellent work. Claire Fuller possesses a refreshing understated literary style, she is an accomplished and complete writer. There are few eminently quotable passages, yet neither is there any slack.

Many writers have approached the fairytale as modern fable, but few have done it as successfully as Fuller and without the contrived and elevated literary language that even such respected writers in the genre such as Angela Carter have succumbed to. Fuller seems just as smart, but not as desperate to prove it – and the transcendental sections are such a rare species they really lift off such as this as when prodigal daughter plays Liszt to mother:

“I pressed the keys once more, harder this time, and let my fingers follow the flow and pattern they knew by heart. I was aware of Ute turning towards me, of a sharp intake of breath which she held while I played, but I closed my eyes and went into the music. And when Ute propped open the piano lid, the room was filled with a magical sound and I knew the music came from somewhere real and true”.

So how good is this? The best debut novel by a long way so far this year. Indeed, better than most of Angela Carter. Claire Fuller reminds me of a latter-day E.T.A. Hoffman; she is that good and I look forward to hearing a lot more about her.

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days book coverAuthor Claire Fuller
Title Our Endless Numbered Days
Publisher Fig Tree
Price £14.99 (Hardback), £9.49 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome

Nessa Carey is a virologist, biologist and a visiting professor at Imperial College. She is the author of The Epigenetics Revolution. She defines Junk DNA as any that does not encode for protein, i.e 98 per cent of it. Carey goes on to state that the human genome contains 20,000 protein coding genes, so I guess that makes 980,000 of the junk variety, according to the author: “Each protein coding region is like a single word adrift in a sea of gibberish”

Carey’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious; Ernest Hemingway’s cat (the genetic equivalent of Schrodinger’s I assure you), Samuel L Jackson and Oscar Hammerstein are drafted in to liven up what is essentially a dry scientific text about a complex subject.

You can imagine Carey is not above interrupting her lectures with a few song and dance moves. The relationship of the length of DNA to a cell nucleus is described with a schooliesque simile: “This is like trying to fit something that is the vertical height of Everest into a capsule the size of a golf ball”

Nessa Carey, Junk DNA book cover

At one point there would seem to be a few tabloid hysterics creeping in, including such gems as “a fleeting moment lasts forever”, “chromosomal intimacy”, and “the mother of one night stands”. The text then – thankfully? – subsides into lists of enzymes and paragraphs of impenetrable acronyms.

We learn that a bizarre array of syndromes originate in the Junk DNA department, such as the fabulously titled Fragile X syndrome, Freidrich’s Ataxia, Diamond-Blackfan Anaemia, Burkitt’s Lymphoma, and so on. In Carey’s opinion, despite DNA “being the poster child for biology, all life on earth may have originated not with DNA but with RNA.”

In places, Carey’s description of the extracellular origin of mitochondria comes over a little Ayn Rand: “Without them we would be smelly little four celled nobodies with hardly enough energy to do anything useful”

Carey goes on to relate the discovery of various functions of Junk DNA, how HOX genes affect anatomy and how transplanted genetic material in fruit flies led to the growth of limbs from their heads.

She then describes the work of The Encode Consortium whose task is to map the “untranslated regions” of the human genome thusly: “The Encode Consortium identified a daunting abundance of potentially functional elements in the human genome” the last part of the book proposes Junk DNA as the cure as well as the origin of many of the genetic syndromes which come from these same areas.

Nessa Carey has done a splendid job of bringing to life this most arcane and obscure of subjects. This is a book for the interested layperson with a basic understanding of the biological sciences. Admittedly, it does occasionally get lost in lists of acronyms and enzymes but never for long. Junk DNA, while not for the faint hearted, is an excellent introduction to a subject that we are certain to be hearing a lot more about in the near future.

Nessa Carey, Junk DNA book coverAuthor Nessa Carey
Title Junk DNA: A Journey Through The Dark Matter of the Genome
Publisher Icon Books
Price £18.99 (Hardback), £12.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

Exotic England: The Making of a Curious Nation

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a regular Independent columnist and the author of three previous books about multicultural Britain. Exotic England is her history of the experience of the English with exotic foreigners, especially through empire.

Although she writes that “Englanders of all classes are attracted to and enlivened by enigmatic strangers and exotic cultures,” she goes on to observe that the English are “instinctively conservative [and] need the conformity and security of their homes and hearths.”

Alibhai-Brown came to the UK in 1972 as a Ugandan Asian immigrant whose family had been expelled by Idi Amin. She inherited her passion for Shakespeare from her father, who never spoke to her after she played Juliet opposite a black Romeo. “Shakespeare, England’s greatest son, pulled us closer together and ripped us apart”.

She puts an unashamedly positive spin on UK multiculturalism, and why shouldn’t she? It has worked very well for her. Yet there are too few disaffected voices in this book such as Guardian journalist Seamus Milne, who writes: “Modern Britain has failed to recognise the empire for what it was – an avowedly racist despotism built on ethnic cleansing and ruthless exploitation”.

That said, it is a work packed full of facts you didn’t know, such as the Chartists and the Cato Street conspiracy having black members.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Exotic England book cover

Curiously, the same criticism could be levelled against this book as those the author attaches to Cornelia Sarabaji. Indeed, both could somewhat ungenerously be regarded as “temperate native individuals who were unthreatening and made the English feel good about themselves”.

Ms Alibhai-Brown’s book is London-centric and middle class. I don’t think her utopian vision is so accurate in the provinces or amongst those on whose behalf she paraphrases Kipling: “The poor little street bred people that vapour and fume and brag”.

Yet there are many insightful interviews. Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir observes: “The English, they say they don’t like immigrants, but they care.” Alibhai-Brown includes other pertinent and amusing quotations such as this from William Cobbett on miscegenation: “It is, I say it with sorrow and shame, peculiar to the English”.

It is interesting to note that even Daily Mail editorials from the distant past used to be more eloquent and poetic than today's offerings: “Even the most sentimental will feel the time has come to stop the abuse of this country’s hospitality by foreign malefactors”. Other pearls of wisdom abide, such as this from Jamaican writer A.G. Bennett: “Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country”.

Exotic England is a fascinating work and even warms the heart of an unreconstructed pessimist like me. Such works do not exist in a vacuum, however, and while I cannot dispute Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s vision, it does seem sanitised and may polarise the debate. Don’t expect to see schoolkids shipping out to ISIS, the UKIP mentality of Middle England or too much human stupidity or ignorance.

Alibhai-Brown’s Anglophilia is a welcome relief from the doom merchants who usually write about the English. This book confirms the idea of nation and nationality as a relative and fluid phenomenon. This is, however, a one-sided work. Alibhai-Brown’s uncritical acceptance of the cult of Shakespeare is typical of a besotted Anglophile, whereas for a peasant brought up within spitting distance of Stratford, the bard is part Joseph Goebbels, part head prefect. ®

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Exotic England book coverAuthor Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Title Exotic England: The Making of a Curious Nation
Publisher Portobello Books
Price £20 (Hardback), £12.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

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