Almost from the day he was born into privilege, Winston Churchill was ambitious. Searching for an opportunity to demonstrate his talents and value to the wider British empire, Churchill enlisted in Great Britain’s army in India, ran for parliament (and lost), and finally, still in his early twenties, shipped off to South Africa as a journalist to cover the Boer War. The Boer War was fought between two colonial powers, the white descendants of Dutch settlers and the British with obvious disregard and disrespect for the continent’s natives. During a skirmish when an English train of soldiers was ambushed by Boer fighters, Churchill-the-embedded-reporter, demonstrated extraordinary leadership and selfless heroism before being captured. Then, despite overwhelming odds, he managed a solo escape from a military prison across enemy territory and many hundreds of miles of African desert to earn his freedom. Immediately he enlisted in the army and continued to fight for England. The traits on display in his younger years reappear some three decades later when Churchill’s self-assurance and stubborn belief in the ability of England to fend off an enemy would make him the hero that stood up to Hitler’s Germany. And yet in this post-Obama era of Trump, even an historical account of excessive self-confidence scratches up against the border of narcissism that is so intolerable in a nation’s leader.
In late Victorian England, a telegraphist discovers a watch in his flat. The watch is exquisitely expensive but does not open to tell the time for several months until an alarm sounds just minutes before a bomb planted by Irish nationalists would have killed its new owner. Our shell-shocked clerk hunts up the Japanese immigrant who built the watch and the two enter into a friendship that is cross-cultural, perhaps latently homosexual, but still wrapped beneath Victorian prudence. Unfortunate for the plot the watchmaker is clairvoyant with an almost unlimited ability to foretell the future. He can also construct mechanical beasts from clock parts that behave with anthropomorphic emotions and chemical concoctions that control the weather. Having assembled a leading character with unexplained and unlikely superpowers allows the author to create coincidences and outcomes that are beyond credulity. Combined with insufficient editing — it isn’t always clear who owns the dialogue — reading to the end becomes extremely laborious. To my shock this book has been nominated for several prizes.
Mukherjee begins with the ancient Greeks. They wondered from whom and how did children inherit characteristics that made them look like their parents. Mukherjee continues to follow the thread of investigation through the centuries to Mendel and his peas, to Watson and Crick and their double helix, on into cloning and genetic engineering. He dives headfirst into eugenics and its tragic outcome under the Nazs as they attempted to control the combination of chromosomes by eliminating undesirable characteristics and the hosts that carried them. After describing all the science of genes and chromosomes he asks us to consider the ethics of where we stand today: on the precipice of once again being able to engineer the outcome of human procreation and development.