Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Mammoth is written by Chris Flynn, Australian editor and critic as well as author of two previous novels, The Glass Kingdom and A Tiger in Eden. It is one of the most unusual books I have read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Tom Keneally’s succinct comment on the back cover tells the reader what this book is about – ‘Playful and serious, encapsulating the macro-history of all life in the tale of one species’.
In 2007, an auction was held in New York City. Within the three-hundred and forty-five lots were the skull of Tyrannosaurus bataar, the severed hand of an Egyptian mummy, a ten-million-year-old penguin fossil and the huge tusk of a mammoth. These items generated much interest especially among movie celebrities of the time and here they have become the characters in Flynn’s book.
When I first began reading this story, I thought it would be ideal for young teenage males for reasons I am sure will become clear as you read this book yourself, however the further into the book I went I encountered aspects that I believe would broaden the reader base.
There are many aspects to this unusual tale.
It is a humorous story. Set in the 1800s, it follows the conversations and story-telling by fossils in a warehouse. On being unearthed they have gained a plane of existence where they become aware of what is going on around them. One suggests this is Fossilife, though another quipped the term sounded more like a hominid dietary supplement. It was ‘way-out’ having fossils from so long ago talking about modern day devices, movies, emails, workplace bullying and filing a complaint with HR.
It is also a confronting story as it highlights the self-centredness of human kind. As the mammoth was found in America, the following example was focussed there but it could apply equally to any country – ‘nothing compares to this nation’s willingness to promote false notions about itself in order to create a myth of American potency’ (15). And again, on the next page, ‘What a boon man is to the world, helpfully clearing away its original inhabitants to make room for their grubby dwellings and mewling spawn’.
This story is powerfully presented in the first person where the narrator is directing information straight to the reader. The message presented is also of great importance, even if it is coming from a woolly mammoth. This book traverses time and place to reveal humanity’s role in the inexorable destruction of the natural world.
It is a story with many extras. Apart from the main storyline, the reader learns about the lives and actions of notable people from the 19th Century. The book takes the reader from the USA, to France, Egypt, Ireland, Germany and even to the Antarctic. In this way I believe that Mammoth could become an interesting educational tool.
It is also a never-ending story as it begins in the Age of Dinosaurs, travels through the Age of Mammals to the nineteenth century, then to the present day and beyond with the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival project being promoted as a means to help combat climate change.
Mammoth is a story of contrasts. It is both playful and serious. There is the language of male youth, with words including dude, bro, duh, smucks, and sayings like ‘popped my clogs’ which create much of the humour in the dialogue, but there is also some more educated language, not often heard in every day conversation.
There are contrasts in beliefs between church and science regarding the age of life on this planet, as well as in the scientific beliefs in different parts of the world in the nineteenth century. Contrasting attitudes in race relations are also foregrounded.
Another contrast I enjoyed was in the personality traits displayed by the fossil characters which so closely mirror those of mankind. The mammoth was a stickler for detail and had a more serious demeanour which was in stark contrast to that of the dinosaur, who had a more flippant approach to things and loved his jokes. This character, according to the author, was loosely based on his editor.
The personality differences are clearly displayed in their story telling style. The mammoth took approximately eighty pages to relate part of his story, which the dinosaur was able to precis into just five or six lines. ‘he got killed thirteen thousand years ago after a glacier fell on him, a portrait painter dug him up in 1801, the painter’s son and a slave reassembled him with his tusks upside down, none of the bipeds had ever seen the like, he got famous, someone made a cheese in his honour and now he’s off to Europe to make America great again’ (83).
At the end of the book the mammoth leaves us with these words, ‘The world has not been fixed. It is still ailing from so many years of abuse. But it is getting better……My stories are dismissed as fairy tales, legends created to teach and entertain’ (250). For me, Mammoth, by Chris Flynn, really does teach and entertain and this, as well as some of the language used in the telling of this tale, was probably why I first thought it belonged as part of the young adult genre. I now believe that it is suitable for a wider audience.
Others have described this book as ‘Astonishing… a sheer joy; Brilliant hilarious and curiously moving; Funny, warm and totally unique’. I agree with all these sentiments. It may sound a crazy idea having a woolly mammoth as the narrator with a cast of other fossils but it seems to work beautifully.
However, as more and more side stories were added, I could only wish that the storyline would get back to the primary tale. The author himself admits that during research for a project like this, he can get distracted by all the enticing rabbit holes. There were times when I felt that too much time was spent on some of the side stories.
This is an amusing romp through history from an entirely different point of view and I would recommend Mammoth by Chris Flynn to all reading lovers.
By Chris Flynn
University of Queensland Press