Typically, I’m a sucker for James Morrow’s mordant humor and voluble narrative style. While generally Galápagos Regained (2015) lives up to his usual standard, I struggled with this one. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, this one follows the adventures of a charismatic young actress named Chloe Bathurst, who seeks to liberate her destitute father from the privations of an English workhouse by entering a contest to disprove the existence of God. When she takes brief employment with Charles Darwin, she finds just the argument she needs to secure funding for a fact-finding expedition to the Galapagos Islands, to retrieve specimens in support of her argument. But as her journey progresses, from England to South America to the Pacific, her mission undergoes several transformations as she gains allies, lovers, and enemies determined to see her plans fail.
Galápagos Regained is wheelhouse Morrow, a madcap historical adventure full of confident wordplay, witty philosophical debate, and a thematic focus on the age-old tug of war between science and religion. Chloe is a delightful protagonist, and at its best the story possesses a speedy, amusing energy. Unfortunately the momentum dies off now and then, especially during extensive epistolary chapters through which Chloe’s competition—a rival expedition to locate the Ark of the Covenant—are conveyed in distancing summary. I found these long passages a struggle to get through, even as they seemed integral to the novel’s otherwise modest science fictional trappings. Ultimately, I soldiered through to find the novel’s climactic set-piece finale and subsequent denouement quite satisfying, but the journey wasn’t without sticky slow-downs and detours. A worthwhile read to be sure, but probably not my favorite Morrow.