‘The Evolution of Inanimate Objects’ by Harry Karlinsky

Is it fiction? Is it non-fiction? Is it somewhere in between?

The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, a curious little book about cutlery (yes, knives and forks) by Harry Karlinsky, is like a reading-magic-trick. The book jacket implies fiction and yet the meticulous footnotes, extensive references and the format (a clever mix of text, correspondence, photographs and diagrams), will have you believe otherwise.

I’m not even going to attempt to tell you what this book is about. I won’t make any sense. Instead, here’s the blurb –

While carrying out historical research at an Ontario asylum, psychiatrist Harry Karlinsky comes across a familiar surname in the register. Could the “Thomas Darwin of Down, England” be a relative of the famous Charles Darwin?

In a narrative woven from letters, photographs, historical documents and illustrations, what emerges is a sketch of Thomas’s life — the last of eleven children born to Charles Darwin. It tells of his obsession with extending his father’s studies into the realm of inanimate objects – kitchen utensils, to be precise. Can the theory of evolution be applied to knives, forks and spoons?

In this stunning factitious biography, Karlinsky presents us with the tragically short life of Thomas Darwin, leaving the reader to decide how much is fact and how much is fiction.

Some books should be noted for the imagination and inventiveness that has gone into writing them (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close comes to mind). This book is one of them – it’s remarkable, clever and genuinely different from anything I’ve read before.

Sentences like this are irresistible –

“Forgoing most of second year at Cambridge cataloguing his newly acquired pieces, studying in exquisite detail their morphology and taxonomy. It was a pastry fork that inspired his next publication.”

And so follows a brief history of how the thickened tine on a pastry fork reflects the adaption of this particular dessert fork species.

I will never look at my cutlery in the same way, let alone my asparagus tongs, my marrow forks and my cream ladles (see below).


Although this strays into spoiler territory (a place I’ve avoided), there is an important note from the author at the end, talking about the factual and fictitious elements of the story. I won’t say more than that (although I know some ‘last-page-first-readers’ will go straight to it. Don’t blame me for spoiling the fun). Regardless of how much of this book you believe, it is sure to have you hitting Google hard once you’ve finished reading. My search results were surprising – had I been sucked in? I’ll let you discover for yourself.

4/5 Top marks for imagination.

There’s an early mention of roasted asparagus in the book. Asparagus is one of my favourite foods (and I have included it with a review before). As summer is upon us in Australia, I decided to hunt down a salad featuring roasted asparagus. Although I often make one that includes green beans, cherry tomatoes, asparagus and bacon (YES!), this recipe for Roasted Potato, Asparagus and Arugula Salad from My Colombian Recipes looks delicious.

* My copy of The Evolution of Inanimate Objects was supplied courtesy of The Friday Project, an imprint of Harper Collins.


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