Soul is a thoroughly captivating novel by Tobsha Learner. Since I read it a few years ago, I continue to think about it because of the way it explores questions about humanity and the way our genetics influence our identity. It also calls attention to the ways science is misused by powerful people to manipulate our world and ourselves in order to suit their needs. One thinks of Monsanto, altering the genes of plantlife worldwide to increase profit, but what would happen if human genes were altered? What if human genes were manufactured the same way, and human beings bred to serve a specific purpose?
For the first fifty pages or so, I misjudged this book. I blame the cover somewhat (yes, I judge books by their covers) because it’s juvenile and cartoonish. But it’s also due to the genre-bending of the book. Parts of it are romance-novel-esque, full of gratuitous sex and ridiculous words that made me cringe. But as the story progresses, it becomes sophisticated, as we learn about genetic profiling and Victorian pseudo-sciences like phrenology and the concept of hysteria. I gave the book a chance, and it didn’t let me down.
The narrative begins in 1849: young Lavinia Huntington, an Irish girl caught in the midst of the Potato Famine, is sexually attacked by an older boy. Before he can rape her, she takes his own knife from his belt and stabs him. Calm and collected, she tells him that he “fell on his own knife.” The narrative then switches to Afghanistan in 2002. Julia Huntington, a scientist, is attacked while traveling in a Humvee through the country. She fights off her attacker, first stabbing him deeply with his own knife, then shooting him at point-blank range with an AK-47. Afterward, she feels nothing but relief–no regret, “no fear, no repulsion at her own actions.” (17)
Thus begin the parallel stories of Lavinia Huntington and her granddaughter, Julia. Julia is a forty-something scientist, married and pregnant. She is conducting genetic research funded by the US government in order to isolate the gene for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are some people, Julia discovers, that are unable to contract PTSD after traumatic events, more specifically, wartime events. This research takes on new meaning in the context of these two women, both of whom are seemingly free of the burden of PTSD. Readers hear their stories in tandem, woven together like a braid.
When Julia returns from Afghanistan, she enjoys a brief reunion with her husband before her life crashes around her ears: her husband of ten years leaves her to start a relationship with Julia’s best friend. In her grief and shock, Julia miscarries her child. Meanwhile, in the back of her mind is her great-grandmother Lavinia Huntington, who was hanged for the murder of her husband in 1861. As she goes through the upheaval of her life, Julia reads Lavinia’s final memoir, and thus, so do we become acquainted with the pair of women and their relation to each other.
In 1861, twenty-year-old Lavinia Huntington has just married a wealthy Londoner and moved from her impoverished homeland of Ireland. In love with her husband, full of wit and desire, she quickly gives birth to a cherished son, but her life loses its romance when her husband withdraws from her both romantically and sexually. Frustrated, she discovers a secret about her husband that she does not understand. In her anger and her grief, she poisons her husband.
The principle of genetic profiling and the nature-versus-nurture argument become profound as we come to understand the events that led Lavinia Huntington to murder her previously beloved husband, and as we watch Julia come to terms with her husband’s affair with her best friend. Julia’s research, she realizes, has an immense dark undertone, as she learns the government intends to use her research to genetically profile potential frontline combat troops, to create a more efficient army. Julia and Lavinia, predisposed by nature toward calm violence, represent the nature-versus-nature argument. Is it our nature that defines us or the way we relate to our environment? Julia discovers her own nature when her anger toward her ex-husband is tested in the same way Lavinia’s was.
Both women have the genetic capacity to kill and the capacity to feel no remorse, but what about free will? At the end of the novel Julia muses, “Surely it was possible that whatever one’s genetic inheritance, one could still evolve consciously beyond the genetic propensities of one’s ancestors? The willingness to take moral responsibility was an immeasurable factor.” (423-24) Soul, this strange little book that’s half historical fiction and half seedy romance novel, surprised me. It surprised me by making me think about pseudo-science, the complexities that make us all human, and the very real danger of those in power misusing science for their own ends. It’s a bit pre-apocalyptic, in a way. It leaves you shuddering, wishing for answers.
Learner, T. (2006) Soul. Australia: HarperCollins.