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Jenny Davidson
Soft Skull Press ($14)

by Liz Brown

"I'm a person who feels emotion like a punch in the stomach," says Elizabeth Mann, the acerbic 25-year-old narrator of Jenny Davidson's first novel Heredity. Judging from the spare, blunt prose, the heroine took her slug to the gut sometime before the story begins and is still coughing, as if the quickest route to oxygen were the unadorned declarative sentence "I double-check the address, I climb the stairs, I ring the bell at reception, I speak to the manager." The stripped-down style evokes classic hard-boiled parlance, but Elizabeth still gives us the nudge, confessing to her lover's wife that she wants to write a detective novel: "Noir. Raymond Chandler. Chester Himes. Derek Raymond. Robbe-Grillet and the French new novel. No psychology. Lots of brutal sex and violence."

But what the brooding American Elizabeth really wants is her smug, adoring paramour, reproductive-health specialist Gideon Streetcar, to impregnate her with the clone of notorious 18th-century racketeer Jonathan Wild. Dispatched to London to produce copy for a budget travel series, Elizabeth happens upon Wild's skeleton among the medical curiosities at the Hunterian Museum. She also happens upon the water-damaged diary of Wild's wife, Mary, who, starting with her birth in Newgate prison, possesses a set of misfortunes worthy of Moll Flanders. Fueled by an obsession with these artifacts and a pointedly oblique aversion to her father, a famous fertility guru—"Heredity is overrated," Elizabeth tells Gideon—the novel's 21st-century narrator sets about to bear the child of "the sexy eighteenth-century organized crime guy."

Its outlandish premise notwithstanding, Heredity sidesteps time-travel and science-fiction genres, one hand reaching for the crime novel and the other tightly clutching 18th-century British memoir. The shift in form lets air into Mary Wild's narrative, and the prose expands with descriptive paragraphs and juicy period squalor. Davidson's pleasure in her research is palpable; the 18th-century narrator dispenses home-grown treatments for jaundice and rubs elbows with sundry underworld sorts—brawling blackguards, termagant aunts, and even a snappish writer named Daniel Defoe.

In addition to Defoe, Davidson seeds the book with references to British novelists—Charles Dickens, Muriel Spark, Georgette Heyer, Laurence Sterne—but with two savvy heroines vying for the attentions of preoccupied men, the novel recalls not one Fielding but two: Henry and Helen. (For good measure, the author splices in quotes from John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Separated by locution and nearly 300 years, garrulous Mary Wild and taciturn Elizabeth Mann share a penchant for comic raunch; Mary yearns for "the rudder of [Wild's] affections" and Elizabeth wryly notes the bulge of Gideon's asthma inhaler before their first conjugal throes against a display case of medical instruments.

As detective fiction goes, the suspense is muted, with much dialogue devoted to the psychology and ethics of genetic engineering. Dramatic portent is propelled not by the characters' actions but by the longueurs of in vitro fertilization and book restoration. Heredity's page-turning passages belong to narrative digression, to Elizabeth's fetishization of medical history, complete with primers on exhumation and embalming.

Despite its profusion of bookish forbears, Heredity suggests kinship with a visual artist, formaldehyde aficionado Damien Hirst, whose installation "Love Lost" features a rust-encrusted gynecologist chair in a fish-filled aquarium. Like the grotesque decay and medical paraphernalia contained within one of the notorious Young British Artist's sleek vitrines, Davidson's curious literary hybrid is at once creepy, comic, and sterile.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003