She Blinded Me With Science

Krista Foss's new novel is Half Life.

*

There’s a dark poetry to scientific language that’s hard to resist, and we’re lucky these women writers don’t. By adapting the lexicon and ideas of science to their work, they’ve created bold hybrids in fiction and memoir that defy categories, challenge narratives and remark on the eerie culpabilities of discovery. Do nerds have more fun? Sometimes it reads that way. But don’t be fooled. When wonder and inquiry are subverted and held up to the light by these writers, the results are often uncomfortable, always dazzling.

*****

Fauna, by Christiane Vadnais

Delicious murk and lyrical category-creep distinguish this linked short-story collection that sees biologist Laura navigate extreme weather in Shivering Heights, a place where climate change shakes down scientific certainties, and in the process of understanding a mutating parasite, Laura’s own body becomes another specimen to comprehend.

Geek-worthy moment:

In a story titled, “In Vivo,” a winter storm traps Laura in a laboratory where she’s torn between her increasing labour contractions and her scientific quarry: “Laura scarcely has time to notice that her specimen is properly cold—it’s hard to recognize as the same creature, so closely has it come to resemble the common silver redhorse, Moxostoma anisurum—when she feels, with her whole being, the compulsion to give birth in the water, to feel the aqueous flow engulf her stomach.”

*

Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts, by Jessica J. Lee

Science requires imagination and that presupposes exploration. British Canadian Taiwanese environmental historian and writer Lee engages both to travel across Taiwan, investigating her grandparents’ past, and in so doing reclaiming that country’s birds, trees, geography and geology, that have been mapped and catalogued in the languages of former colonizers as a precursor to exploitation. Lee’s book then is both a poignant memoir and an act of scientific re-appropriation.

Geek-worthy moment:

In 1999, an earthquake created three new lakes in central Taiwan, one of them flooding a forest of thousand-year-old cedars and cypresses or “God trees.” In a passage that culminates with Lee swimming among the submerged ancient giants of the Shiuyang Forest, she describes the arrival of plundering botanists, the logging that threatened the prized species, and the forensic tracking of the trees’ DNA to protect what remains from poaching.

*

Blaze Island, by Catherine Bush

Her sister’s a federal climate science advisor and novelist Bush puts this insider’s edge to good use in her tempestuous novel about a father—a fugitive from climate deniers —trying to protect his beloved daughter from the ravages of climate change and grief until a storm delivers its reality, along with destiny-altering strangers, to the shores of their remote island.

Geek-worthy moment:

The clock is ticking to stop a radical weather experiment on Blaze Island, and as newly arrived Frank explains solar radiation manipulation to her, Miranda grapples with both her father’s secrets and her growing attraction to the stranger who fears his parent’s wild ambition.  “Because, all things considered, the technology’s fairly easy to implement, there’s actually not much to stop rogue nations, or some private dude with a ton of money from deciding, Hey, I’m going to do something about all this crazy weather,” Frank says.

*

Radium Girl, by Sofi Papamarko

Several stories in this fresh, original collection from writer Papamarko make peripheral nods to the cultural fallout of scientific innovation—from the doomerish ruminations of a dinner party host to a family unhinging in an underground nuclear bomb shelter. But two in particular, “Five  Full-Colour Dreams of a Young Marie Curie” and “Radium Girl,” directly plumb the life of the world’s most decorated female scientist and the element she discovered for lyrical effect.

Geek-worthy moment:

In her title story, “Radium Girl,” Papamarko satirizes the religious and cultural imperatives for women to glow through Elda who giddily numbers watches with a product called Undark, believing she has the best job in the world: “They call us the ghost girls. After the sun sets, we light the way. Walking home, taking the train, always in pairs or packs. We glow like fireflies, the dust from the radium paint luminescent on our white collared smocks after a full day’s work of painting watch dials.”

*

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart, by Madhur Anand

In this expansive meditation on the lives and divides that beget others, poet and ecology professor Anand’s form-bending memoir arrives in two halves that mirror the partition of India into majority Hindu and Muslim nations and her family’s own partition, from before and after the parents’ migration to Canada. Which half you start with determines which voice you hear more from—a woman navigating her own past or that same woman imagining the past through the lens of her parents.  Ideas from biology and physics knit it together in a poetics of memory and reckoning.

Geek-worthy moment:

Anand employs scientific ideas as contemplative transitions, including this one that prefaces the memory of her mother recovering from a heart attack: “Fracture mechanics is a sub-field of mechanics dealing with the study of the propagation of cracks in material using the ideas of stress and strain. Small cracks, fracture lines, were the oversight of many human failures in history of ships, planes, buildings, civilizations, falling apart.”

*

Specimen, by Irina Kovalyova

Kovalyova, a Simon Fraser University biology lecturer, packs scientific acumen with narrative punch in this gloriously inventive short-story collection that uses everything from the side effects of Botox injections to a late Victorian case study of mesmerism to frontal lobe development in the teenage brain to reveal the fragility and darkness of the human condition. 

Geek-worthy moment: 

The story, “Peptide p”  subverts  the form of a peer-reviewed scientific publication—from abstract to discussion complete with charts—to report on children who resist sickness from  tainted artificial meat because of psychic abilities and shared grief.  In the slow reveal of the report writers’ sinister end-game—a Professor D. who studies the “chemical thoughts” of plants is repeatedly referenced—the staid language builds a world bereft of ethical squeamishness.

*

The Naturalist, by Alissa York

Haunted by the approach and words of naturalist Walter Ash, who dies on the eve of an 1867 lizard-gathering expedition to the Amazon, his widow and son carry on with the excursion in the company of a young Quaker assistant, Rachel.  And it’s her forays into the jungle, where her close observations of wildlife confirm Darwinian theory and rattle the faith she grew up with, that become a tale of discovering the scientist within.

Geek-worthy moment:

In one of their earlier ventures into the jungle, before they spot the reptiles they’ve come to collect, a brilliant macaw is shot from a high branch with a poison dart and Rachel, moving into appreciate the bird’s colors and bright yellow secondary feathers, remembers something she overheard Walter Ash say: “Any woman might marvel at a feather… It takes a special turn of mind to appreciate a scale.”  Cue the approach of the slithering wonders.

*

Learn more about Half Life:

A raw, absorbing, tender, and witty novel about a woman's long-overdue reckoning with memory, truth, and the multiverse of familial love.

Elin Henriksen is a middle-aged single parent under pressure. Her formidable mother's health is declining, her fearless teenage daughter wants to leave but won't say where, and the new high school principal has problems with her unorthodox teaching of physics.

And then there is the upcoming ceremony at the Art Museum. In ten days, a gallery will be named after her late father, Tig Henriksen, a modernist furniture designer whose sought-after cult pieces hide a troubled narrative. With a mixture of anticipation and dread, Elin prepares to reunite with her once-estranged siblings—Mette, a free-spirited singer-songwriter, and the serious, emotionally distant architect Casper—hoping they'll finally grapple with hard truths they've so far refused to accept.

In the countdown to the event, as her daughter's risk-taking mounts, her mother's fragility intensifies and strange packages land on her doorstep (including a yellow-eyed dog), Elin's only relief is confiding to a dead physicist.

Struggling with the paradoxes of truth and clarity, love and witness, genius and ambition, and her own ambivalent connection to her confessor, she inches toward confronting not just the explosive potential of memory but the costly fallout of silence.

Told with dazzling insight, intelligence, and compassion, Half Life is a beautifully rendered story about family truths and the profound human need to be believed.

 

 

March 29, 2021
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