Saturday, 20 September 2014

Review: 'The Lost World' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Yet another Penguin edition
for me to covet
Rating:  4 out of 5 stars 

On a zoology expedition up the Amazon River, Professor Challenger makes an inexplicable discovery. Back in London, his claims are ridiculed throughout the professional community. Reluctantly, he recounts to journalist Edward Malone, "Curupuri is the spirit of the woods, something terrible, something malevolent, something to be avoided. None can describe its shape or nature, but it is a word of terror along the Amazon. Something terrible lay that way. It was my business to find out what it was."

Professor Challenger vows to prove his tale at a zoological meeting, and a party is formed to find the truth. Malone joins adventurer Lord John Roxton and staid professor Summerlee on the mission. They journey to the depths of the Amazon, well provisioned and armed to the teeth. But how little they are prepared for what they find there.


Review

The thing I'm really enjoying listening to audiobooks while driving is that I feel like it's kind of bonus "reading".  I have to drive to and from work so if I'm listening to something that is a little bit less than interesting, I can listen impassively on a journey I'd be making anyway and I find it far less like hard work than I do forcing myself to read something that I'm finding dull.  The upshot is that I'm taking gambles with my choices far more than I do with the books I choose to read, a practice that is encouraged by my local library's slightly random collection of audiobooks.  I'd heard about the Professor Challenger series before but I always figured I'd read the Sherlock Holmes books and might eventually get to The Lost World one day.  My local library had other ideas.

What I find interesting about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing is that his characters are rather complex and, in many ways, not wholly likeable.  Sherlock Holmes is regarded as a British national treasure and yet his genius comes at the expense of social platitudes.  Professor Challenger has major anger management issues and is volatile but he's also vulnerable and is out to prove himself and I couldn't hate him.  Edward Malone is kind of a feeble companion for a budding reporter but he's inoffensive enough - he sets out to find adventure to prove to the woman that he loves that he isn't pedestrian, for heaven's sake, but is at least reasonably bold about it most of the time.  The other two key players (the trigger-happy John Roxton and academic rival Professor Summerlee) are walking stereotypes but not in a way that makes them seem ridiculous, just a little predictable.

So it's a completely random story where a group of grown men go traipsing off into the jungle to see what they can find and maybe prove that Professor Challenger isn't delusional but it's one that doesn't take itself too seriously so it never seems like it's trying too hard or falling over itself for validation.  Maybe because Sir ACD wrote it later in his career when Sherlock Holmes was already a tour de force.  This is the kind of story of exploration and braving new frontiers that you just don't see any more.  There's an innocence about the sort-of-intrepid explorers and the novel itself that's really kind of charming.  Sir ACD (sorry - blame Hanna) doesn't try to come up with a pseudo-scientific explanation as to how there might ever be dinosaurs just hanging out in the jungle because he probably didn't have to.  We know now that the premise was daft but did his original readers in the early 20th century?  Maybe there was still enough of an element of uncertainty that it stopped readers thinking it was bonkers and the cast of academics gave the tale enough gravitas to sweep them away.  Or maybe pre-World War England was prepared to have little fun with what it didn't know about the world.  I'm happy to pretend that either is true.

And what I think really made it for me (yep, another thing) was that, somehow, it's obvious that Sir ACD isn't just trying not to write about modern technology but that it just wasn't there.  There are compasses and maps and ill-timed letters and no cameras with which to prove your experiences in far flung lands and it works perfectly and I fell for it completely.  It doesn't feel like there's a gap where he's dodging some modern creation that would have given his plucky heroes the answer and it just...well, it just works.  I know that the story is faintly ridiculous, even for it's time probably, but this is yet another classic where I can honestly say that I just didn't care.  That's becoming a kind of theme for me - I'll forgive these classic authors their jaunty silliness because the writing is almost always spot on and the themes hark back to a time when plausibility wasn't the key to a good adventure and there were enough unknowns to make filling the gaps with dinosaurs a worthy pastime.

Overall:  If you've run out of Sherlock Holmes mysteries to ponder or even just aren't interested in the nation's favourite detective,  The Lost World is a fun and less murderous way of enjoying some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing and characters.  Vintage adventure fiction at its best, when the Amazon was even more of a mystery than it is now and the simple ideas weren't over-complicated.  Plus, dinosaurs.

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Date finished: 25 March 2014
Format: Audiobook
Source:  Borrowed from my local library's audiobook site
Genre: Classic; Adventure
Pictured Edition Published:  by Penguin Books in January 2009
Originally published: 1912

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