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Woman on the Verge
Heredity
by Jenny Davidson

Reviewed by
Jack Carneal

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Jenny Davidson's novel Heredity is a both a meditation on the tug between genetic inheritance and free will, and a tour through the wracked psychological landscape of a woman grievously harmed by the father she has good reason to hate.

This may sound like a more than enough, but don't relax just yet. This bawdy, breathlessly paced first novel is also a psychological thriller, a sometimes sordid tale of familial deception and well-placed distrust, and a glimpse into the delusional (ok, bizarre) means by which the self-destructive heroine attempts to heal herself through some quasi-science that's equal parts science fiction and tabloid miracle.

The book's genomic theme is thin but essential to the plot. The first-person narrator, freelance writer Elizabeth Mann, is haunted by the fear that she has inherited her father's genetic legacy of mental cruelty and physical domination (he's an infertility specialist).

As her mental torment becomes more apparent, however, her twisted take on heredity becomes more tangible.

Based on a dubious but creative extension of existing genetic technology, Elizabeth contrives to bear a child with sperm from her real-life lover Gideon Streetcar (her father's protégée) and the reanimated genetic material of her fantasy lover, the infamous 18th -century criminal Jonathan Wild.

This convoluted tale begins as Elizabeth flees her troubles in New York and takes an assignment in London. As she conducts research for a travel guide, she visits an obscure museum and comes across Wild's preserved skeleton. When Streetcar, Elizabeth's future lover, introduces her to the memoirs of Wild's first wife, the tormented young reporter becomes obsessed with the ribald tales of Wild's exploits.

As the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that for Elizabeth, the long-dead tough guy is both a romanticized father figure and an ideal lover.

As Elizabeth falls for Wild, she begins a loveless affair with Streetcar. His attractive wife, it turns out, is unable to conceive, even though Streetcar is a renowned fertility specialist. Streetcar, presumably desperate to father a child, enjoys the no-strings sex, and goes along with Elizabeth 's cockamamie reproductive scheme.

Not surprisingly, Davidson's book often feels overstuffed. It quickly bogs down in nihilist, neo-noir mannerisms: quick, joyless sexual trysts, drinking to the point of sickness, and aberrant sexual behavior.

As it happens, Davidson saves a tragic and crucial piece of the narrative puzzle for the novel's end. As Elizabeth 's dreams of giving birth to Wild's clone fall apart, clues unravel too.

Ultimately Heredity becomes a clear and fascinating portrait of a young woman caught on the horns of a classic dilemma: Is she doomed to follow in the genetic footsteps of her insufferable—and perhaps evil—father? Or can she re-enter the world as a person able to make her own choices?

Heredity succeeds less as a portrait or a meditation on biology or genetics than as an acute psychological portrait of a woman struggling to survive, to understand, and to begin again.

 

Jack Carneal is a freelance writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Davidson, Jenny. HereditySoft Skull Press, Brooklyn, N.Y. 2003.

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