Reviewed by Siouxsie Wiles
REVIEW: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary
By Caspar Henderson
Published by Granta, 2012
Artist Emily Valentine combines road kill and dead pets to create the most beautiful of creatures. Her collection of feathered and winged cats, dogs and skinks look like they belong in the pages of a medieval leather-bound bestiary, whose bizarre mix of cryptozoology and religious parables celebrated the beauty of the (often imaginary) natural world.
However, it will come as no surprise to the biologists among us that there are creatures in the real world as wonderful as any of the fantastical offerings Emily or the ancient bestiaries could conjure up. In The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, journalist and writer Caspar Henderson gives us his “stab at a bestiary for the Anthropocene“, a superb alphabet of creatures you thought you knew, and others you won’t believe exist.
From the Axolotl to the Zebrafish, Henderson fuses science, literature and mythology to reveal the hidden wonders of our world and highlight our impact upon it. My favourite chapter has to be “G for Gonodactylus, the ‘genital fingered’ stomatopod”, which describes a mantis shrimp Gonodactylus smithii which has the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom and clubs its victims to death with a force that almost reaches the speed of a bullet in just a fraction of a second.
Henderson’s writing is a pleasure to read, his bestiary chocked full of interesting titbits and quotations that will have you laughing out loud one minute and despairing for the future of our planet the next. I for one shall never look at a dolphin the same way again. Even before publication and being shortlisted for a swag of awards this year, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings had picked up a couple of awards, so you don’t have take only my word for it that this is a seriously good read. It would be the perfect stocking filler for the ‘beasts’ in your life this Christmas!
Dr. Siouxsie Wiles is a microbiologist and bioluminescence enthusiast who heads up the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland. Here she combines her twin passions to understand and combat infectious diseases. In a nutshell, Siouxsie and her team make nasty bacteria glow in the dark.