Rating: 5 stars
Also known as: The Selected Works of T S Spivet
I’m a sucker for a good book cover, and when I spied this one on a table in Waterstone’s, I couldn’t resist. I knew nothing about it, it just looked good.
When I started to read, I discovered a paeon to science. It’s longer than a paeon, of course, but it explores and acclaims the very joy of scientific discovery, the power that science has in ordering and understanding the world, and how important it is to not cloister science as the exclusive preserve of academia.
The story is exciting and funny. T S is a unique kind of boy, very clever, very inquisitive, and practical in a way that isn’t very practical for his circumstances. He keeps notebooks on everything, analysing the world around him. He is misunderstood by his father. He is not really noticed by his mother. The one adult he feels close to has lied to him and for him without permission.
T S is 12 and at that junction where you are still young enough to need the security of adults’ authority over your life but are also beginning to realise that adults are flawed and not always to be relied on. So T S begins to rely upon himself and sets out on a journey. It’s a coming of age road trip. The language is delicious, wrapping similes and analogies around itself. The guileless honesty of T S makes him instantly likeable. He’s a lot like Charlie Bucket.
There are a lot of facts in the book – scientific, historical, mathematical, artistic – and it reads like a really good popular documentary that presents these facts in an accessible way without patronising. I learned a lot about the continental divide and the division of the US into east and west based on whether water flows from the divide to the Atlantic or to the Pacific. I learnt something of the history of Montana mining towns. It’s an adventure story that doesn’t just rely on risk and tricky situations.
Illustrations drawn from T S’ notebooks pepper the narrative as asides, revealing quirks of family history or providing context to a theorem or observation. These are often drily funny and make me think of the films of Wes Anderson. And then the introduction of T S’ mother’s notebook recording the biography of T S’ great great grandmother made me think of novels like Possession – the unveiling of family mysteries and the revelation of family pioneers.
The book coincidentally made me realise how attached I am to things. Each time T S is in a situation where it looks like he might become separated from his suitcase, I grew anxious and had to force myself to concentrate on the story’s progress, rather than on the ‘what ifs’ circling around my head. Things are important to me, then. Kind of in a similar way to T S.
The jottings I made at the time I read it are effusive: the best thing I’ve read so far this year, and I’ve read some pretty good stuff. It’s part adventure story, part road trip, part acclamation of science. I was entertained and educated, made nervous and gripped, delighted by the beauty of the prose. I want everyone to read this book, in a way similar to how I want everyone to read Crime and Punishment. It has the same honest way of fronting up to the vagaries of humanity as C&P. I don’t know that it will become a classic. It’s probably not Literary enough for that. But still, I loved it and am mentally shelving it with my favourite books.
Not bad for a book selected on the basis of its cover.