Thursday, May 28, 2020

"The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World" - Patrik Svensson

"The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World" shouldn't work. It just shouldn't.

Be honest. The title makes you laugh. The concept seems downright weird.

Truthfully? I can't imagine there will be a book that will surprise me more than did Swedish journalist Patrik Svensson's debut that he himself has called "strange and nerdy."

"The Book of Eels" is, indeed, strange and nerdy.

It's also sublime. It's also lyrical. It's also mesmerizing. "The Book of Eels" is hypnotic and immersive, informative and engaging. It's one of 2020's most pleasant surprises, an almost unimaginable weaving together of natural history meets memoir.

"The Book of Eels" is about eels, that's definitely true, but it's also about life and love and how our existence defines us and how our existence can never define us. It has faith in science, yet offers glimpses of being tempted like a mysterious lover by the mystique of faith and the soothing security many find in trusting the unknowing.

Already winner of Sweden's top literary prize, the August Prize, "The Book of Eels" entered my life almost as a dare. A friend who fears eels became aware of the book and expressed a temptation to read it. My curiosity got the best of me and on the eve of its U.S. release by Ecco, a HarperCollins Publishers imprint, I almost timidly requested the opportunity to review it.

Within hours, my request was granted.

"What have I gotten myself into?," I asked myself.

"Why am I reviewing a book about eels?" "Am I insane?"

"No. No, I'm not insane. I'm strange. I'm strange and nerdy," I chuckled to myself.

I started reading, Svensson's poetic lyricism quickly immersing in alternating chapters serving up natural history and Svensson's own childhood memories of nighttime eel fishing with his father under a thin moonlight and amidst the shallow waters not far from their nearby home.

Svensson wrote "The Book of Eels," or gave himself permission to write "The Book of Eels," after his father's death by cancer. It was a death that added mystery to a man who'd always been a bit of a mystery, a mystery not far removed from that of Anguilla anguilla, the European Eel. They are notoriously elusive creatures that have refused to reveal their secrets over the years. It is believed that they are all, quite literally all, born in the sea without borders, Sargasso Sea. They will eventually return - to mate and to die, though to date years upon years of research has been unable to determine why.

They simply do. They all do.

Svensson could never quite figure out why his father so completely loved eel fishing. As near as Svensson could tell, he never learned it from his father or the man he would come to know as father. He simply did and he surrendered himself to it.

Aristotle researched the eel, developing both well-founded and remarkably outrageous theories. A younger Sigmund Freud spent an entire postgraduate research project searching for, quite seriously, the eel's testes. He failed to find them.

Yet, they reproduce.

Danish marine biologist Johannes Schmidt spent 20 years exploring the eels' connection to the Sargasso Sea, while Rachel Carson spent her entire professional life obsessed with the eel.

The eel's truths have remained elusive; it's secrets remain well hidden.

As I began reading "The Book of Eels," it became a mesmerizing story I dared not put down. It's not that so much happens. It doesn't. It's that I became enchanted by Svensson's worlds, both that of the eels and that of a father and a life whose secrets remain ever elusive.

Svensson, who describes himself as not believing in God, is clearly intrigued by the metaphysical world that he brings so vividly to life here. He believes in science, yet he cannot deny that science has been unable to answer the mystery of the eel.

Likewise, despite all that he knows about his life and his father there remains ancestral secrets and unanswered questions that will likely never be answered.

Svensson rather magnificently brings science to life here, yet he does so embracing the cosmic hilarity of eels that can even seemingly transcend their own realities at times. At times, you can practically hear Svensson's chuckling amidst his words. The long history of eel fishing is waning, the number of eels inexplicably waning and their numbers now protected as they are identified as endangered. He embraces this, never having loved eel fishing quite as much as his father did yet writing about it with such warmth and reverence that you simply know it somehow altered his DNA.

There is little denying that "The Book of Eels" will not resonate with everyone, perhaps its cinematic equivalent being a European-tinged Malick effort that patiently, intimately reflects upon life, faith, science, death, and what this all actually means. While not all will engage with its unique, almost fairytale like rhythm, for those who surrender "The Book of Eels" has much to offer and will prove to be one of 2020's most unique, engaging, and inspired literary experiences.

"The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World" was released on May 26th by Ecco.

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