Mendel's Dwarf - US reviews

From The New Yorker,July 13 1998:

...(a) furious, tender and wittily erudite book.

 



From The New York Times Book Review, Sunday 22nd March:

Double-stranded questions, mingling biology and metaphysics, are the material from which Simon Mawer has fashioned his thematically ambitious and witty novel...

Until the novel's final chapters, when the pace accelerates towards its disturbing conclusion... what keeps us reading is more than mere curiosity about whether Benedict will win the woman of his dreams and with stand the temptation to play God... Far more interesting is the breadth and depth of the narrator's sensibility - his mix of seriousness and grace, the charm and lack of pedantry with which he touches on a range of weighty ideas...

...As the novel progresses, we also begin to see how the lens of genetics refracts the oldest and fuzziest metaphysical debates. Questions of predestination and free will take on a vertiginous spin when we substitute the dictatorial gene for an omnipotent God. Benedict's inquiries into the chemistry of genius recall theological speculations on the nature of the soul.

Mendel's Dwarf is an odd and affecting literary experiment that keeps pushing itself and its readers to think harder, go deeper. Simon Mawer writes beautifully, and the pleasure of his novel comes from the chance to watch him consider the mystery of the world, to report on the clarity with which nature speaks to us, at least on the cellular level.
Francine Prose

 


 

From The Washington Post, Sunday 22nd March:

From the very beginning of this stunning novel, we know that the narrator, Dr. Benedict Lambert, is a dwarf... it's hard sometimes to reconcile Lambert's voice -- sardonic, sarcastic, erudite, incisive, unbearably clever,and horny as hell -- with the brutal facts of his physique... but inside this misshapen form is a brilliant mind.

Woven through the novel is the tale of Gregor Mendel... Simon Mawer..knows Mendel's sad little story impeccably, and he tells it quite beautifully, embellished with imagined scenes of Mendel with his family, in his garden, and carrying on a fictitious flirtation with Adelaide Rotwang, a luscious young hausfrau from town. The passages about Mendel's life, combined with clear and cogent information about contemporary genetics (including footnotes and website URLs), add a richness to the novel, which is at its heart about the vicissitudes of chance as seen through one randomly cruel toss of the genetic dice...

...it is overall a remarkable performance. Lambert's voice is distinctive, unique and often downright chilling; it grabs you by the throat and dares you to admit to your own revulsion, combined with guilty gratitude, when you see him in all his grotesquerie. And it reminds us, again and again, of how much about us is due to chance, and how little about our genes, even at the dawn of the 21st century, we truly understand.
Robin Marantz Henig

 

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From the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday 22nd February:

British writer Simon Mawer takes some formidable risks in his superb new novel. After all, any author who chooses to employ a dwarf as his narrator-protagonist is bound to find two powerful ghosts looking over his shoulder: Oskar Matzerath from Gunter Grass' "The Tin Drum'' and Oly Binewski from Katherine Dunn's "Greek Love.'' Like Grass' and Dunn's masterpieces, "Mendel's Dwarf'' is intelligent, ambitious, ferocious. Like Oskar and Oly, Mawer's pint-sized tale-teller trains an unblinking, appraising eye on human cruelties and political nightmares, as well as on the quiet interludes where love flourishes, no matter how unpromising the circumstance. Unlike Grass or Dunn, Mawer plays down the gothic or grotesque elements in his story...

The book, which marks Mawer's publishing debut in the United States, is not simply about Benedict's career or his stoic attitude toward his "curse,'' however. For there is another gene he is after -- or rather "Jean,'' an institute librarian. Normal to a fault and blandly irresolute (Mawer cleverly uses these traits to build up plot tension), Jean Miller increasingly depends on Benedict to be her confidant as her marriage grows ever more violent, and in the process Benedict falls in love with her...

Parallel to Benedict and Jean's story is that of Gregor Mendel. Mawer, sharing his narrator's fascination with this pivotal figure in science, makes Mendel's life every bit as compelling as Benedict's...

The book's mirror structure and Mawer's brilliant manipulation of key images and phrases make for an impeccably shaped novel. But technical finesse can only take you so far. What gives "Mendel's Dwarf'' its rambunctious life is the prickliness of Benedict's voice and fluid contradictions of his personality...

The novel's thematic concerns are many: the random caprice of the genetic draw, the slippery path by which the personal becomes the political, the cruelties latent in the human urge to control and improve, the all-too-easy dismissal of history's watershed moments by those who take part in them (the audiences at Mendel's lectures, for instance). The book's wild card is the role played in it by "that most unfashionable of emotions, love.'' All of this is brought together with powerful effect and not a shred of sentiment in the memorable voice of Benedict who, "squat and bowed'' though he is, makes a grand and enduring impression. Oly and Oskar, surely, will be glad to have him join their company.
Michael Upchurch

 


 

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday 1st March

Mawer has discovered his own unique manner of addressing the most basic, biological questions of heredity and normality...

Unlike most first-person narratives, which tend toward lax self-indulgence and really ought to be framed through omniscience, Mendel's Dwarf could hardly be told by anyone besides Lambert. The brittle, bitter, lush and longing voice belongs to a man furious at the hand fate has dealt him, simultaneously avid and terrified of playing it for a chance at winning the undeniable rewards of the flesh. "Nature is what nature does," he says, and that finally brings up a multitude of other questions that go beyond biology toward a vaguer and more ominous definition of humanity. How, for example, could one imagine that the final result of Mendel's benign experiments might occur a short distance from the friar's home when genetics gave way to eugenics during the 1930s and '40s? In no uncertain terms, Lambert points out: "It was a science that would ultimately lead to the ovens of Auschwitz."

...Mendel's Dwarf turns... into a remarkable meditation on the line where inheritance gives way to choice. We are both what we're given and what we make of it. Religion, history, science, and the ineffable character of creation all spin through Mawer's double helix of a plot in a way that, though highly intellectual and often academic, is never didactic.

...every novel is different, Mendel's Dwarf more so than most. Call it a hybrid, call it a mutation, it's a grand scientific adventure and a tragic human love story combined, as idiosyncratic and mysterious in its own way as the first gene formed out of cosmic dust, the one that may be described, but that refuses to be explained. As Lambert himself notices in a moment of highly unscientific modesty, "You can't come to terms with genius." Perhaps, however, we can recognize it and give thanks.
Melvin Jules Bukiet

 

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From the San Jose MercuryNews, 8th March:

To the rapidly-growing literature of deformity, "Mendel's Dwarf'' is an engaging addition... Simon Mawer, an award-winning British novelist, has pulled it off with a winning combination of black humor, deeply felt cynicism over the moral doublespeak of modern science, and an underlying generosity of spirit.

Without resorting to false sentimentality, Mawer draws us in, makes us feel Lambert's thwarted passion, then chides us for our insensitivity. "You can tell nothing from a man's appearance, nothing except the depths of your own prejudice.'' Shades of the Elephant Man? Not me, you want to say, but, yes, me... For some, the interposition of this information with the remainder of the novel will be distracting, yet the detail does serve to underscore Mawer's basic moral arguments. And, there is plenty of story here, a drama of love and betrayal, with modern genetics as the weapon of retaliation.

Mawer does not shy away from the politically incorrect, from the bitterness and undisguised cruelty that Lambert has developed. And Lambert is the last person to ask for your forgiveness. "Sympathy is rank with contempt, fetid with the implication that I, the target, am somehow less than you, the sympathizer. I have never asked for it. Never so much as once have I played the poor, sad dwarf, smiling through his tears.''

Thoroughly repugnant character? Yes and no. Lambert is honest, true to his pained soul, not to those who would wish him to be what would make them (and you, the reader) comfortable. Lambert is someone you will not soon forget.

Unfortunately, the inclusion of so much genetic material, all neatly presented as counterpoint to the story, gives the book a certain excessive sense of structure, as though the story's scaffolding were still in place. And the incessant irony underscoring so much of Lambert's thought grows a bit thin. But perhaps this is unavoidable -- so much of modern ethicsis paradoxical and is best treated through the ironical observation.

The juxtaposition of a mutant dwarf and the history of genetics does provide a powerful metaphor. A dwarf is the physical manifestation of a single mutation. The rest of us are luckier in that our DNA misinformation is not visible. Until recently, we have been spared this brutal self-knowledge. Mawer suggests that, in this age of rapidly proliferating identification of genetic defects, we will be similar to Benedict Lambert. In our mind's eye, we, too, will be dwarfs.

If you have a serious interest in where we are headed, and want a good, cynical but moving drama, read "Mendel's Dwarf.'' If not, don't plead ignorance when the new genetics arrives at your doorstep.
Robert A. Burton

 


 

From the Detroit Free Press, 15th March:

"Mendel's Dwarf" is an improbable, bittersweet and wonderful novel about the science of genetics and life...

Despite any messages for caution in science and reproductive choices, "Mendel's Dwarf" is no polemic. Rather it concerns the arc of a rich but unfair life. Benedict Lambert is memorable not because of his courage (he discounts bravery if the actor was not given a chance to select his affliction), but because of his willingness to peer into the pit on the hope that something better might emerge. His story will grow and stay with the reader long after the book is set aside.
Marla Schwaller

 

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From the Library Journal, November 15 1997:

Benedict Lambert, the protagonist of this imaginative and intelligent novel, is the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel and a famous geneticist in his own right. He is also the dwarf of the title, obsessed with finding the marker for his condition and haunted by the all-too-easy assumptions/prejudices achondroplastics face when dealing with society at large. That a stunted body does not mean a stunted mind, feelings, or libido is brought clearly into focus through Lambert's relationship with a "mousy" librarian named Jean. Mawer weaves a story that is in turns compassionate, erotic, and angry. In telling Bendict's story, Mawer also tells that of Mendel, a genius who died unappreciated but who ultimately had a more important impact on the world than even Darwin. His discoveries provide the base for modern genetic research and the possibility of identifying markers for disease (and possibly cures), but they also raise the possibility of our being able to select particular physical characteristics for our offspring. The ethical and moral implications are obvious, particularly when brought into focus through someone whose own strain is likely to have no place in this brave new world. A wonderfully crafted, thought-provoking tale in which the science never gets in the way of the story; highly recommended.
DavidW. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersberg, Fla.

 


From Booklist December1, 1997:

Few authors write real intellectual novels anymore. Most write to prove their own acumen, reciting esoterica to satisfy their egos or titillate fellow travelers. In Mendel, now released in the U.S. after winning critical acclaim in Britain, Mawer tackles an intellectual subject as he should: to uplift and enliven the reader. Mawer uses the complex and fascinating world of genetic research as the foil for his love story, yet in his hands, the subject becomes earthly, almost mundane. Benedict Lambert, born a dwarfand the great-great-great nephew of genetic researcher Gregor Mendel, pursues a career in molecular biology to uncover the gene that trapped him in a mutated body. Despite his brilliant mind, his life is a constant struggle for acceptance from a society that would rather see him as a circus performer. Most painful, the woman he loves, his colleague Jean Piercy, is devoted to him in her heart and mind, but she cannot accept his body. Mawer develops a parallel plot, interspersing scenes with Benedict and imagined events with his progenitor Mendel, conducting experiments with his crop of garden peas. Benedict, Mendel, and genetic science create a unique tension, with clever prose and the author's insight into human sadness turning it all into something truly profound.
Ted Leventhal

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