Saturday, December 20, 2008

the last book I read

The Hunter by Julia Leigh.

I was in one of those "everything £1" shops in the centre of Newport last week and I was having a desultory rummage through their paperback section, not expecting to find anything more interesting than the usual Britain's Hardest Bastards true-crime stuff, when I came across this. The synopsis on the back cover looked interesting, and the Faber & Faber logo is usually a reasonably good indication that it's not going to be utter rubbish. I enquired as to the price - it turned out to be a pound! So I bought it.

The un-named protagonist (identified only as "M" - he does give a name to a couple of people during the course of the book, but we're led to assume this is fake) is, as the book title suggests, a hunter. He's been hired by a biotech company to investigate reported sightings of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger and bring back tissue samples for genetic analysis. Needless to say the tiger is not intended to survive the sampling process (as it involves heart, liver, etc. being removed, which is bound to smart a bit).

He rents a room with the Armstrong family on the edge of the wilderness where the creature was sighted. It turns out Lucy Armstrong's husband disappeared some time previously on an expedition (of an unspecified nature) into this same wilderness, and she has retreated into heavily-sedated seclusion in her bedroom, leaving her children Sass and Bike to run the house. M finds himself torn between the hunter's desire for solitude he feels during his expeditions into the wilderness, and an increasing connection with the Armstrong family.

And that's about it, really. It's another short book (170 pages) and it commendably doesn't waste time giving M much of a back-story; we're just straight into him setting up at the Armstrongs' and heading off onto the plains to smear himself in wallaby dung and set some snares.

Instead of spoiling the ending for you, I'll veer off at a slight tangent - one of the things that induced me to shell out the princely sum of one pound on the book was the central premise, since the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine is a fascinating creature. There's something slightly spooky about large animals (the thylacine was about the size of a large dog) which are extinct, but were around recently enough for photographs to have been taken (the last thylacine died in Hobart Zoo in 1936, unless the subsequent uncorroborated stories of sightings are to be believed). There aren't many other examples, but the quagga and the poor old passenger pigeon are another couple.

The thylacine is also a fascinating example of convergent evolution, whereby similar environmental constraints result in two only very distantly related species developing very similar characteristics. In other words, if it looks like a dog and barks like a dog, then it might be a dog, or it might be a carnivorous marsupial. Hope that's clear.

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