Book Reviews, Non-fiction

Gone by Michael Blencowe

Dynamic naturalist Michael Blencowe has travelled the globe to uncover the fascinating backstories of eleven extinct animals, which he shares with charm and insight in Gone.

Inspired by his childhood obsession with extinct species, Blencowe takes us around the globe – from the forests of New Zealand to the ferries of Finland, from the urban sprawl of San Francisco to an inflatable crocodile on Brighton’s Widewater Lagoon. Spanning five centuries, from the last sighting of New Zealand’s Upland Moa to the 2012 death of the Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, Lonesome George, his memoir is peppered with the accounts of the hunters and naturalists of the past as well as revealing conversations with the custodians of these totemic animals today. Featuring striking artworks that resurrect these forgotten creatures, each chapter focuses on a different animal, revealing insights into their unique characteristics and habitats; the history of their discovery and just how and when they came to be lost to us. 

Thank you NetGalley and Ivy Press for the free eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Gone is a book about eleven animals that have gone extinct in fairly recent history. That’s the thing that struck me first, I think. Despite all the talk of endangered species that currently circulates, I had not truly realised that the past 300 years had seen such a wave, though really I shouldn’t have been surprised. The majority of these animals were wiped out during the European age of exploration, which not only did irreparable damage to other cultures, but to entire ecosystems.

“Victorian society was enthralled by the natural world and they demonstrated their admiration through coveting, collecting and categorising it. Birds, butterflies, ferns, eggs, seaweeds, shells, you name it – if the Victorians could get their hands on it, they’d kill it, skin it, stuff it, press it and pin it.”

Blencowe writes in a casual yet knowledgeable manner, charting the discovery and demise of each of the 11 animals, throwing in anecdotes that made me laugh, only to break my heart a few lines later as he describes the slaughter of Steller’s Sea Cow or the merciless industrialisation of San Francisco that caused the disappearance of the Xerces Blue butterfly. I think his style of writing is perfect for this book, which should reach not only those already interested and involved in conservation but also the general population. We as a species need to realise how our actions affect nature and the other creatures at our mercy, and this book is a great illustration of that. None of the explorers, miners, and settlers that hunted animals to extinction set out to do so, but they did it nonetheless. Blencowe truly drives this home in his chapter about the famous Dodo.

“The dodo resurrected again, an absurd creature, a bird too stupid to survive, complicit in its own extinction. By caricaturing the dodo we have distanced ourselves from the crime we committed. But stood there, staring at these pieces of crinkled skin and bone, I finally saw the dodo for what it really was. The dodo was a bird, a wonderful bird that lived on an island in the middle of the ocean. And we killed it.”

As much as I enjoyed reading this, imagining a world where these long gone creatures lived, and found the author’s style of writing thoroughly engaging, there is a real sadness that pervades the book. I often had to put it down at the end of a chapter and pay tribute to the creature that the world will never see again. The reality that we as a species caused these extinctions is repeated often on the pages, and it is hard to deal with the knowledge that we have yet to slow down. How soon will another book like this one be published, listing all the latest animals we’ve driven from the face of the earth? How soon will we ourselves start to feel the effects?

There is still an element of hope, though, that runs through Gone, which is one more reason it should be widely read. Though we may have brought about these extinctions, we are also more than capable of turning the tide on others, and this book is definitely a step in that direction. It is also full of beautiful illustrations like the one on the cover above, which truly bring to life the animals Blencowe writes about. It is out from The Ivy Press on 27th April, and you can preorder it from your preferred bookshop.

All quote are from an advanced reading copy, and may be changed prior to publication.

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