He is not making much headway, and Leeuwenhoek passes him by like a meteor, cutting a swathe through the milling necks. He looks back to see Vermeer standing, doffing his cap, whether to a goose or a person he cannot see, a dark blot in the midst of a rippling, cacophonous, white canvas.
Sarah Tolmie’s The Little Animals is billed as a scifi historical fiction about a dude who discovers tiny animals and has to deal with that knowledge. Tiny animals? I’m in!
What was apparent to everyone but me (I have since gathered) is that the “tiny animals” he’s discovered are microscopic organisms. It’s cool, but I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t a little disappointed not to be reading about, like, really small elephants and stuff.
Once I accepted my loss, I had to admit that the story I was reading was actually very cool in its own right.
Truly, it’s awe inspiring what she’s created in this story. Her ability to envision something so universally understood that it is beyond mundane to us in nonfiction land from the point of view of their character finding it – nay, actively discovering it – for the first time is thrilling and fascinating. How she manages to separate the bare fact of organisms from our comprehensive modern knowledge of them is a sight to behold (and no microscope necessary).
I found myself hoping early on that she’d perhaps looked up contemporaneous research and notes from real life discoverers of microscopic organisms or something of that sort to further inform the wonder and mystery and paradigm-shifting discovery she was walking her character Leeuwenhoek through. As the cast of characters grew, I only grew more enamored of that idea. Whether she actually did that research, I cannot say. “No matter the source of her inspiration”, I decided; what matters is that it is evident Tolmie was inspired indeed.
But of course it didn’t take more than a quick search to discover what plenty of readers with more science-based education probably knew from the first: this book is based on real human Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who ground his own lenses for early homebrew microscopes. This really was the first dude to see microorganisms. How cool! And with that context in mind, it’s easy to see that Tolmie has the chops (and the background) to do this story justice not just in a retelling but in an imaginative and fantastic reinterpretation.
Beyond the real science, the way she interwove increasingly magical elements into her story was so cool, so effective, and really quite creepy. The tone she was able to create and maintain left me curious and unsettled in equal measure. The mounting ominous feeling never really let up, and I was amazed by how well she paced the reveal and the interaction of clearly fantastic elements in an otherwise nonfiction environment.
I just wish I liked it.
The voice she chose for this book was just not one I could engage with. My reading pace was demolished instantly – I couldn’t get into this story and I felt like each page was a labor to read. There’s nothing technically wrong with it, by any means. It just didn’t work for me.
Even though I LOVE the idea of this book so much (!), I was barely able to finish it. And I’m so bummed by that reality. But that’s a gamble an author makes when choosing a narrative voice that is more difficult to engage with. Some readers are going to be turned off.
Given all of that, the good and the bad, I doubt I’ll pick up another of her books. The voice she used was appropriate to the setting but unpleasant for me to read, and because of it I respect the story she’s written and her for writing it – but I did not like this book.