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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


Ruth Padel

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To purchase Darwin

Title: Darwin
Author: Ruth Padel
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2009
Length: 145 pages
Availability: Darwin - US
Darwin - UK
Darwin - Canada
  • A Life in Poems

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Our Assessment:

B+ : clever, fairly well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A 5/2/2009 .
Financial Times A 2/2/2009 Elizabeth Speller
The Guardian . 14/3/2009 Richard Holmes
The Independent . 27/2/2009 Peter Forbes
New Statesman . 9/4/2009 Andrew Brown
Scotland On Sunday . 8/2/2009 Andrew Sclater
TLS . 17/4/2009 John Greening

  From the Reviews:
  • "Why does this book work so well ? How does it manage to say so much in so few words ? Ms Padel seems to have caught the quintessence of the manís character, as if in a butterfly net." - The Economist

  • "Ruth Padelís stunning sequence of poems is infinitely more than an anniversary keepsake or a tribute to her great-great grandfather, Charles Darwin. It is a unique biography. Teeming with facts and creatures, it builds into an imaginative and dynamic response to a man who changed the way we understand ourselves." - Elizabeth Speller, Financial Times

  • "Padel's 160-page sequence of poems may be the most remarkable tribute of all.(...) Here, at least, we have a daring and genuinely innovative piece of work. At best Padel reveals a unique sense of drama, speed and poetic intensity in what was otherwise a long, sedate and ruminative scientific life." - Richard Holmes, The Guardian

  • "I'm not sure you could recount Darwin's life in verse vignettes like this to someone who knew nothing about him other than the billboard words, Evolution by Natural Selection: much of the pleasure of the book is allusive. But Padel knows this and provides comments in the margin. This reinforces the impression of a Victorian facsimile, which helps to sustain the mood. (...) Perhaps because he was such a prolific correspondent, Darwin expressed himself so naturally that in several places Padel can make poems by quoting some passages verbatim. Her tone chimes seamlessly with his. That Darwin was a writer of great clarity and no little literary skill makes it fitting that one of the best books celebrating his enormous stature, 200 years on, should be by a poet." - Peter Forbes, The Independent

  • "One of the things that makes Darwin so attractive is the beauty of his writing. It is without superfluous ornament; sometimes it is without any ornament at all, especially in his letters and journals. Even then, the mix of forceful thought and rhythmic subtlety is astonishing, and it often shows up Ruth Padel." - Andrew Brown, New Statesman

  • "(A) daring and wholly original book. Instead of adding to the many commentaries and biographies of Darwin in established genres, Padel has innovated. Her book is a mutation in the evolution of Darwinian literature, and it is a mutation that has what it takes to survive. More than that, it deserves to thrive." - Andrew Sclater, Scotland On Sunday

  • "Padel's technique is such that she holds our attention throughout. Admittedly, the need to tell a story results in a book that is somewhat lacking in repose, and which can feel impersonal (.....) Padel's book emerges as a kind of one-woman variety show (with its multiple voices, dialogue and monologue, its cuts and spots and special effects)" - John Greening, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ruth Padel's Darwin is a biography in verse, with many of the poems incorporating great chunks of Darwin's own words. Marginal notes occasionally provide additional background or contextual information, but Darwin's life is, indeed, largely conveyed through this series of poems.
       Rather than one long and uniform verse-narrative, Padel does divide the life up into short poems, most a page or so in length, and in varying forms. Most are snapshots, as it were, devoted to a specific event or time. Padel also presents Darwin's life in five acts, the five chapters of the book covering the different periods of his life, the first and last the longest stretches, the middle chapter -- 'The City' -- focussed entirely on the period 1837-8.
       Padel's technique proves fairly effective. While she does cover a fair amount of the science, much of the focus is on Darwin's personal life, from his formative experiences to his domestic life. Much of this lends itself to the concentrated verse-presentation, as, for example, the quick succession of reports on the decline and death of daughter Annie. In not trying to be comprehensive -- there's relatively little about Darwin's expeditions and the samples he slowly accumulates, for example -- Padel nevertheless provides a a good sense of the man.
       Many of the poems themselves are very strong, and Padel offers considerable variety. From the almost comic list 'The Balance Sheet' -- weighing the against and for of marriage (a wife would be: "Better than dog" is one argument ...) -- to his first steps in a tropical jungle ("He's walking into every dream he's ever seen"), Padel balances quote and invention very well.
       Occasionally she does stray too far with embellishment:

     Five baby cockroaches, hatched below
the boards of Great Marlborough Street kitchen,
gather like amber soot in a crack of skirting
ready to whisk inside the cistern when he moves.
       But most of the time she remains closer to the mark (and subject). From his physical ailments, including his seasickness, to his theological concerns (which include worrying about upsetting his wife with the implications of his work) Padel conveys much of this very well. Many of the quotes are particularly forceful -- well chosen, and well integrated into the verse.
       An interesting and largely successful experiment, Padel's Darwin is a fine introduction to the man, and a welcome change from usual dry biography. Well worthwhile.

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Darwin: Reviews: Charles Darwin: Ruth Padel: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Ruth Padel was born in 1946.

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© 2009 the complete review

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