This is a book about extinct animals – I’m personally interested in extinctions and so I thought I might enjoy this book, but, obviously it would depend on the way the author handled the subject and the quality of the writing. I did enjoy this book.
Eleven species are given their own chapters; two mammals (Steller’s Sea Cow and Schomburgk’s Deer), six birds (Great Auk, Spectacled Cormorant, Upland Moa, Huia, South Island Kokako and Dodo), a reptile (Pinta Island Tortoise) an insect (Xerces Blue) and the Ivell’s Sea Anemone. This is clearly not a pro rata treatment of extinct species (no plants, few invertebrates) but is closer to an accurate reflection of where the most information lies and where the best stories can be told. And Michael Blencowe is an excellent story-teller. Each chapter is a good read and the author unearths interesting information about the species, the places where they lived and the characters involved in trying to conserve them or propelling them into the abyss of extinction.
There are challenges writing about extinct species – you cannot go and see them and then wax lyrical about their behaviour and the beauty of, or threats to, the places where they live. All that is in the past. Blencowe visits many places where these species used to live but also the museums where they are interred. I’m glad he visited San Francisco to pay homage to the Xerces Blue butterfly (as I have done – see here and A Message from Martha p180) but he didn’t get to Mauritius but instead hunted down Dodo stories in Battle, from Vauxhall Bridge and in Oxford. This added an unpredictability to the chapters – are we going to New Zealand or to a dusty museum in central Europe instead? Well, read the book and find out. Wherever Blencowe takes us he has a good tale to tell.
You don’t have to be interested in extinction to enjoy this book, as each chapter has its own narrative of people and places which stands alone. There is no attempt at synthesis across the species and the book simply ends with the author floating in a lagoon in Sussex (as one does). That’s fine. But reading these accounts one can’t escape reflecting on what a sorry tale these extinctions exemplify. After all, they are just the worst case scenarios of wildlife loss occurring right across the globe. I confess to being drawn to an analogy with recent UK government cabinets – a mixture of uncaring greed and ignorant bungling in which the good intentions sank without impact.
The cover and text illustrations are by Jade They – quite nice. A one-word book title is quite classy, a 10-word subtitle, less so.
This is a very good read and a successful model which could be repeated – unfortunately there are plenty of extinct species left about which to write. If Michael Blencowe is to extinction what Liam Neeson is to kidnap rescue films, then I’d be keen to read Gone 2 and Gone 3.
Gone: a search for what remains of the world’s extinct creatures by Michael Blencowe is published by Leaping Hare Press (on 27 April).