The Origin of Species
By Nino Ricci
(Doubleday Canada) $34.95
I wasn’t planning to read Nino Ricci’s new book, The Origin of Species, for two reasons. First, its title was drawn from Charles Darwin’s 1859 classic, On the Origin of Species, so I thought that a novel based on evolutionary theory might be too scientific to be interesting. Then, when I heard that Ricci’s new novel drew parallels between narrative and evolutionary theory, I was sure it would be dull.
But when Ricci won a Governor General’s Award for the book, I was pleasantly surprised to open this Toronto writer’s fifth novel and settle into a delightfully quirky story.
The book, written in Ricci’s graceful and generally well-paced prose, focuses on Alex Fratarcangeli, a 30-something English grad student. Alex, like Ricci, is an Italian-Canadian from Leamington, Ont., who studies at Montreal’s Concordia University in the 1980s. Alex is supposed to be completing his dissertation on the parallels between narrative and evolutionary theory, but spends more time analyzing himself and his moribund life.
The characters in Alex’s life include a parade of women, a psychiatrist and the quirky immigrants to whom he teaches English. But the context is almost as interesting as the characters, because Ricci funnels us back to the 1980s with references to the Chernobyl meltdown, the civil war in El Salvador and the Canadian political situation. Alex walks past Pierre Trudeau’s house hoping to see him and has imaginary conversations with CBC broadcaster Peter Gzowski. Ricci, meanwhile, skilfully draws us back to a haunting experience in the Galapagos Islands that lies at the heart of the story and Alex’s malaise.
The Origin of Species plods in spots, especially during Alex’s introspections, but it is satisfying. After winning the Governor General’s Award, Ricci told the CBC he wanted to explore the evolutionary view of the world and look at how we can “understand people differently if we look at them in more evolutionary terms.” He manages to do some of that with this novel, so his premise is interesting after all.
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