The High Places
Hamish Hamilton, $32.99 pb, 275 pp, 9781926428567
Towards the end of Fiona McFarlane's enigmatic collection of short stories, The High Places, we meet the odd, enchanting story 'Good News for Modern Man', which functions as a key to many of the book's concerns. The story centres around Dr Bill Birch, a malacologist undertaking an obsessive study of a colossal female squid, Mabel, which he has trapped in New Zealand. Overseeing Birch's quirky undertakings is the ghost of Charles Darwin, who sprints alongside Birch 'in his nineteenth century socks', a figment of Birch's imagination. As the story progresses, we gain insight into the zeal gripping Birch, from the moment he loses his faith in God to his rationalist understanding that he is simply an animal among animals, and his subsequent quest to free Mabel so she can 'remain a mystery'.
In another writer's hands, this material might function as a whimsical eco-critical fable about the impossibility of knowing the animal Other, but for McFarlane it is a vastly more interesting and complex enterprise. The surrounding cast of characters express their concern for Dr Birch, who, we intuit, is hallucinating, and possibly suffering from some kind of tropical malaise; we sense his passion but doubt his sanity. His identification with Mabel is all-encompassing, transcending the realm of usual concern or belief; his surety and self-righteousness are alarming. The reader is thus cast in the pleasurably discomfiting role of rationalist, asked to see past the protagonist's myopia and grope towards the truth.