Review – Mendel’s Dwarf, by Simon Mawer

I can’t imagine how hard it must be to write convincing, accurate, and compelling historical fiction. Not only is the author tasked with imagining the inner thoughts of important historical figures and their interactions with other characters (fictionalized or not), but also has to develop a broader narrative and overarching plot and maintain a balance between entertaining and informing the reader.

In my view, the best historical fiction manages to confound the reader into blurring the lines between the historical facts and the supplemental fiction, and to provide a glimpse into the life, time period, and/or broader importance of the subject matter. While even the best history books can at times be a slog, historical fiction, if done well, can combine the page-turning qualities of the best fiction with the authoritative and informative nature of non-fiction.

Mendel’s Dwarf, by Simon Mawer, is the second historical fiction book recommended to me by my grandfather (whose recommendations quickly move to the top of my to-read pile). The first, The Spinoza Problem, by Irving Yalom, used Baruch Spinoza’s life to provide a window into his works and broader philosophy, and introduces the reader to the influential Nazi thinker Alfred Rosenberg. The “problem” was Spinoza himself: Spinoza was both one of history’s greatest minds, and a Jew, which presented an inherent conflict to the Nazi ideology of aryan supremacy and the inferiority of the Jew. The existence of Spinozan thought stood in the way of Hitler’s propagation of his hateful and dubious ideology. The book was a worthy introduction to Spinoza, who played a minor role in the book himself, for the most part serving as a posthumous foil for the Rosenberg and the Nazis.

Mendel’s Dwarf follows a similar format to The Spinoza Problem, using the life and work of Gregor Mendel, who introduced the world to the concept of probability- and trait-based heredity through his study of the pea plant, and is known as the father of genetics. To highlight the importance of Mendel’s work, and its relevance today, the author introduces the character Benedict Lambert, a modern day (but fictionalized) genetics professor who is supposedly related to Mendel (thereby carrying some part of Mendel’s genes), and who also happens to be a “little person,” or dwarf. This irony is hardly disguised by the author: Lambert is a victim of genetics.

The book does an admirable job of putting us inside the mind of Professor Lambert, who makes it his life’s mission to identify the specific gene within the genetic code responsible for achondroplasia (dwarfism). Along the way, he struggles with the realities of his condition on his life as he navigates a world designed for the “average,” normal person.

The book intersperses the life of Lambert with visits inside Mendel’s mind and to the Czech abbey where he devoted himself to the life of an Augustinian friar. There, he found and carried out his life’s obsession: the growing, experimenting, and cataloging of the pea plant. Over decades, Mendel grew thousands of variations of the plant to devise his probability-based heredity hypothesis that have become ubiquitous in high school biology classrooms everywhere.

What the novel does incredibly well is juxtapose the humble origins of genetics with its wide-reaching and fraught applications through history. Through asides scattered throughout, the book takes us through the history of genetics (and its harmful relative eugenics), including the concept of nature versus nurture and other heredity-based hypotheses that served as justifications for the subjugation and murder of millions of people in Nazi Europe and the Soviet Union, as well as anti-immigration and racist beliefs based on false scientific premises that persist to this day. The author addresses these topics, as well as the more sensitive and evolving question of pre-selection associated with in-vitro fertilization, through the book’s main plot line as well.

While some concepts, such as the screening for identifiable genetic diseases and conditions in the prenatal stage, have become uncontroversial, if not standard procedure throughout the developed world, other practices seemingly pulled from the pages of science fiction, such as selecting a baby’s sex, skin or hair color, or height, remain ethically dubious. The book does a great job of shining a light on these topics, proving a modern day application of Mendel’s work and the study of genetics.

At times, the book gets a bit technical and throws around unnecessary scientific jargon, but is for the most part accessible. Also, the book is incredibly sexual (perhaps intentionally, given the “breeding” inherent to the study of genetics), but I’d definitely steer anyone liable to blush from mild sexual content away from this book.

On the whole, Mendel’s Dwarf provides a strong introduction to the history and study of genetics, which is about as much as one can ask from a book of scientific / historical fiction.

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