It’s 1855 and the scientific world is consumed with the question of race – are other races inherently inferior to whites? It is obvious that blacks are morally, intellectually and culturally deficit, and their strength and endurance clearly reflects the fact that they are better suited for manual labour than other endeavours, but how and why is this so?
Noted English professor Samuel Bates, member of the Royal College of Physicians, is a master craniologist – he uses scientific instruments to measure cranial angles to demonstrate the superiority of white over black. He and continental rival Frenchman Jean-Louis Belavoix (of the Société Ethnologique de Paris) have devised a long experiment to determine the cause. On Arlinda, a remote and deserted island off the Ivory Coast a mute wet nurse will raise two infants (a black boy and a white girl) for twelve years. Twice a year both scientists, and Bates’ assistant, will visit the island, bringing supplies and measuring the children’s heads. At the end of the experiment they will have their answer, and one will win – not only scientific acclaim but also be triumphant over the other.
The experiment is clearly multiply flawed (Lynn’s first response when I told her about this book was “and their being different sexes won’t make a difference?”), but I thought the premise of this novel was appealing – not only a demonstration of outmoded ideologies and thinking but the potential for a really fascinating tale of the lived experiences of children growing up in isolation. This could have gone in an interestingly dystopic Lord of the Flies direction, or been an interracial and utopian Blue Lagoon, or even completely surprised me with an unexpected twist.
Instead the plot focused almost exclusively on the scientists, primarily Bates, who is driven by an inchoate but strong and consuming need to be triumphant over Belavoix, who seems to be less committed to the project as it continues. There is a small subplot concerning Nicholas Quartley, Bates’ assistant, who falls in love with Norah, the enigmatic carer, and we get occasional glimpses at the lives of the children, though only during the half-yearly visits.
The time the book is set was pivotal in scientific understanding of racial differences – it opens when ‘sciences’ like craniology were flourishing, when criminality and class were seen as inevitable and immutable, and closes in the aftermath of Darwin’s findings. Belavoix expects that the experiment will end when one child kills the other, though there is no discussion in the text about which child the scientists expect will survive, and why; I expect that had the boy killed the girl it would have been interpreted far differently than had the girl killed the boy. And this is one of the interesting depictions of the way bias and expectation prejudice the interpretation of data – when the girl does something it is seen as being kind, or humane, or at the very least premeditated; whenever the boy does something it is thuggish, or evidence of slow wit, or animalistic. But if you’re interested in learning more about how allegedly scientific and unbiased measurements have been used to reinforce racial stereotypes you will be much better served reading The Mismeasurement of Man by the late Stephen Jay Gould.
The style of writing is extremely literary and, as has so often been my experience with literary writing, this comes at the expense of plot and character development. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, wasn’t engaged with the plot, and didn’t even care enough to throw the book at a wall. In fact I only finished reading it because I had taken no other book out with me today, and have vowed (once again) to stick to my current reams of unread books before buying new ones.
And thanks to Racists for furnishing a brilliant example of book buying rule #4: however good the blurb sounds, read the first page or two and make sure that the novel has the same promise. – Alex