Ark Baby, by Liz Jensen

Ark Baby

by Liz Jensen

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Format: Paperback, 288pp. 
ISBN: 0879517298
Publisher: Overlook Press, The 
Pub. Date: October 1999

Description from 

Liz Jensen's second novel, Ark Baby, is a dark, randy, and riotous romp back to the future featuring twin plot lines as tightly twisted as a double helix. The novel (if not the story) kicks into gear on New Year's Eve 1999 when a sudden, heavy rainfall over Britain signals the end of fertility on the Emerald Isle; with the turn of the millennium, every last specimen of British womanhood is rendered mysteriously barren. In the aftermath of this event, child-starved couples start turning to lower primates to satisfy their baby lust; enter veterinarian Bobby Sullivan, the hapless hero of Jensen's quirky meditation on evolution and survival of the fittest. After accidentally killing a client's beloved macaque monkey and being charged with murder, Bobby escapes to a remote northern seaside town called Thunder Spit and eventually gets involved with two, slightly hirsute twins whom he manages to impregnate--the first fertile women in England since the millennium.

Not content to chronicle Bobby's adventures in Thunder Spit circa 2000-something, Jensen weaves in the 19th-century adventures of foundling Tobias Phelps as counterpoint. Discovered abandoned in the Thunder Spit church by a childless vicar and his wife, Tobias is raised by the couple as their own, but his unusual appearance (squashed features, odd feet, hairy body) spur him to find his biological parents. As Bobby muddles towards 21st-century parenthood and Tobias gets tangled up in Victorian England's fascination with the theories of Darwin, the two plots begin to converge in a welter of diary entries, exotic recipes, strange artifacts, and curious coincidences. By the end of Ark Baby readers might well conclude that far from being "red in tooth and claw," Nature has one hell of a sense of humor.

From Kirkus Reviews 

A grab bag of a story that offers a literate if self-conscious and scattered tour of Victorian grotesqueries as postmillennial Britain faces extinction. Second-novelist Jensen (Egg Dancing, not reviewed) moves from the coming millennium back to the Victorian period, and forward again, in an attempt to illuminate the many strange links between humans and their nearest primate kin. A torrential rain has caused a mysterious decline in fertility, and by 2005 it's clear that Britons will likely become extinct. Primates have become substitute infants, and when veterinarian Bobby Sullivan is accused of having murdered one (he insists that he was only following the orders of the jealous husband), the threat of prosecution sends him north to the remote seaside town of Thunder Spit, where all Jensen's narrative threads eventually converge. The author's version of the Victorian age here is populated with a crowd of odd or outright freakish individuals. The famous taxidermist Dr. Scrapie, of Thunder Spit, has been asked to mount an elaborate collection of stuffed animals for Queen Victoria. His wife, the ``Empress of Laudanum,'' has drug-induced visions of the future, and their giantess daughter, Violet, is a noted vegetarian cook. There's also a former slave-trader searching for animal specimens for the Queen and hoping, meanwhile, to figure out whether apes and humans can mateand who finds the last ``Gentleman Monkey'' in the wild and puts him in a cage with a captive ballerina. Meanwhile, the harried Bobby is attracted to Rose and Blanche, twins with unusual feet and body hair. Pregnant by Bobby, the two women, who turn out (of course) to be descendants of the gentleman monkey and the ballerina, via Violet, are the result of an ``evolutionary tangent''the sudden changes that speed up evolution and produce a new breed of humans. They are also, it seems, the mothers of a new race of Brits. Strained would-be satire, with its intellectual and narrative punch diluted by very obvious foreshadowing. -- Copyright 1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Description from

From the Publisher 

Five years have passed since a mysterious millennial downpour spread infertility throughout the land. As the Fertility Crisis deepens, veterinarian Bobby Sullivan has other things on his mind - he's on the run after following a husband's orders to exterminate a monkey named Giselle, his wife's cherished baby-substitute. Sullivan finally stops running and opens his veterinary office in a small coastal town, only to learn he has not really escaped - the town is haunted by the Victorian freak Tobias Phelps, whose life is directly linked to the evolution of events confounding Sullivan in the modern world. As a century and a half of logic, religion, magic and science connect, two men, three women and Queen Victoria's entire bestiary are catapulted into a wild and explosively funny farce.

From the Critics From New York Newsday A madcap black comedy that suggests Will Self's work...required reading for anyone who dreams of the perfect child.


An Open Forum Number of Reviews: 1 Average Rating:

Jack Wolf (, December 8, 2000, 

Best damn new picaresque novelist since Rushdie! Here's a still fresh but already overlooked masterpiece for the reader who loves the great and near-great satiric novels of world literature. It is too early to tell if Jensen will sustain or develop her already impressive talent with future works. But I've read many in this fine tradition -- from Cervantes and Swift, Poe and Twain, to more recent or contemporary masters like Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass, Italo Calvino, Kobo Abe -- and now, Liz Jenzen. Of course there are many others I've omitted. I was particularly excited about Salman Rushdie when 'Midnight's Children' was published. No great genius was required to see the brilliance here -- and it won the Booker Prize, too, of course. 'Midnight' wasn't his first novel, however. 'Grimus,' if memory serves, was the first or one of the first of Rushdie's offerings. An intelligence and wide range of interests was evident, but gave little hint of the greatness to come (and still forthcoming from this man). Jensen's 'Ark Baby' is only her second novel. Yet it shines brightly -- and darkly, too. Professional reviewers, if they've taken note, and not many have as far as I can tell -- have damned her with faint praise and exiled her from the world community within her homeland: a Brit wit, no less, no more. She's been mentioned, generally disparagingly, in company with Fey Weldon and Will Self. Well, wake up, people. Take another look. Weldon's works often entertain us mightily, and are under-appreciated still as well-distributed and reprinted as she is. But, hey! -- Weldon took a while to reach her greatest heights. Jensen has announced her arrival; she's served notice -- and as a novelist of international note. 'Ark Baby' is the new manifesto. Like a bull elephant, it thunders upon the stage and trumpets the arrival of the new century, the possibilities of new schools, new movements. I hesitate, but only slightly, to rank her directly on a par with Grass, Rushdie, Cervantes, Calvino, Twain (Clemens) and the like -- because she's just warming up. But it is also odious to compare and rank authors this gifted -- odious and pointless. The ranking doesn't matter, the treasure houses of the individual works, these matter. Plunder them. Jensen is her own unique talent. The work will engulf you in a 'night of serious drinking' for the fiction connoisseur. And Jensen may appeal to a much broader audience than many other vastly-talented authors of recent times (Nabokov and Joyce come to mind). While ribald and Rabelaisian at times, she has a full repertoire of style and dimension at her command. But you won't find the wild romps of vulgarity and sexual frankness so creatively manifest, for example, in many of Will Self's works. 'Ark Baby' will appeal to both men and women, when given its due. And that is rare today. Jensen's sense of humor, her insight, and her humanity engage both sexes, while making merry of new and old science and lore. She slices and dices with a light touch, but with a deft hand, through matters of reproductive technology, mating, courtship, and child-rearing. Like Mary Shelley, perhaps, she is capable, too, of cutting entirely through us and reassembling the human corps, when it suits her -- but not as a sadist or mad herald of doom. It is our willful delusions or feigned ignorance, our failures of responsibility and compassion which she seeks to excise. Then she adds a dash of parody, a shadow-play, an anti-pageant where nationalism, tourism, and global-market imperialism are made to march -- our civilization's talismans transmuted to stone, to dust, before our very eyes. No one has done this before -- no one -- not this way, not this well. Jensen's 'Ark Baby' gives evidence of an ample treasury of sources -- but the final impression is not of individual brushstrokes, colorful flourishes and artistic gimmicks. A whole emerges; emerges, and gathers momentum. The work is not seamless. But what great work in any field, from any time or any place truly is?

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