The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt
|The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Eileen Shaw|
|Summary: While deviating somewhat from the real-life character of its main subject, Nikola Tesla, this remains an accomplished and captivating story, encompassing homing pigeons, the FBI, a time machine and love in the 19th century maelstrom of New York.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: April 2009|
Nikola Tesla, born in 1856, was a young engineering student in Croatia, a Serb with a ferocious talent for invention when he sailed to America armed only with a note of introduction from his former employer to Thomas Edison which said: I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man. Promised prodigious amounts of money to reorganise Edison's workshops, he was in the end cheated by Edison, who made a joke about the American sense of humour when Tesla asked to be paid.
This novel tells the story of the dwindling days of Tesla's life, sequestered in Room 3327 of the Hotel New Yorker, unable to pay his rent, ignored and ridiculed for some of his ideas, spied on by the FBI, and yet it was his invention that gave the world electricity – not Edison's as is commonly believed.
Samantha Hunt fictionalises Tesla's last week from the point of view of an inquisitive maid who breaches the solitude of his hotel room one day, and begins to read an account of his life written by Tesla's friend Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. Hunt makes Tesla a sad, gentle figure in his old age, but this does not chime with his known fiercely reclusive tendencies, breaking out occasionally into demented showmanship with his inventions presented as a kind of series of magical arts. This is a man who fell in love with a pigeon, advocated the prevention of breeding by the 'unfit' by means of sterilization and by some accounts was subject to attacks of OCDC and paranoid schizophrenia. Hunt's account romanticises Tesla, presenting him as a lonely, misunderstood genius, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Yes, this is fiction, but one is somewhat startled by its determined lack of affinity to its real-life central character.
Using artistic licence, Hunt displays her imaginative craft well, to tell a tale of genius traduced by an unforgiving and uncaring world. The maid, Louisa, spends much of the novel falling in love with a young man, while her father, Walter, and his friend Azor decide to build a time machine so that Walter can go back to meet his wife, who died giving birth. Hunt teases the reader with some neatly worked conundrums about time travel, while never quite claiming it as a possibility. Meanwhile, nineteenth century New York is evoked in all its luxury, squalor and chaos to sometimes brilliant effect.
What all this has to do with the real Tesla, is a moot point. The man has been subjected to a number of indignities by succeeding generations, not least being portrayed by David Bowie in the (otherwise excellent) film The Prestige. Ignored while alive, feted when dead, he was undoubtedly a tortured and eccentric soul, but little of this comes through in the book.
That said, the scope, warmth and charm of Samantha Hunt's writing mitigates against too much criticism of her novel. It is a beguiling, even scintillating, fictional travesty, a wonderful contradiction in terms.
Further Reading: I'd like to recommend Adam Foulds' book, The Quickening Maze as a book that is both faithful to the real-life characters depicted and also a fascinating insight into nineteenth century ideas about poetry, sanity and madness.
The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt is in the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009.
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