Book Review: “Mammoth” by Chris Flynn (@UQPbooks)


Mammoth, by Chris Flynn, is a humorous and honest critique of human history from the perspective of a 13,354-year-old mammoth.

While waiting to be sold at a natural history auction in Manhattan, the mammoth shares its story with a range of fellow fossils, including a tarbosaurus, a palaeo penguin, and a pterodactyl. Also present is the severed hand of a mummified Egyptian pharaoh.

The mammoth recalls how it died while leading its herd in fighting against bipeds. “What a boon man is to the world, helpfully clearing away its original inhabitants to make room for their grubby dwellings and mewling spawn. You really have to hand it to them – they’ve taken a pristine wilderness that spanned the globe and brought it to heel with their concrete and firearms and technologies.”

The mammoth’s journey in our modern world began in 1801 when its bones were dug up. In New York, it noticed the desire of leaders such as Thomas Jefferson for America to appear bigger and better than everyone else. “Nothing compares to this nation’s willingness to promote patently false notions about itself in order to create a myth of American potency. Politics in this country has at its core an overcompensation for feelings of inadequacy.”

In Paris, the mammoth eavesdropped on some leading European scientists proposing the “theory of scientific racism” that became entrenched in Western society for many years to come. Quoting the renowned French naturalist Georges Cuvier: “The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilised people of Europe belong, and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is superior to the others by its genius, courage and activity.”

Then, in Dublin, the prehistoric creature became embroiled in the failed Irish rebellion of 1803. The mammoth’s sympathy towards the prosecuted revolutionaries is obvious, with the tone of its narrative turning increasingly tender and detailed.

However, it is the mammoth’s recollection of the plight of the mysterious O’Neill siblings that is most heart-rending. Through skilful storytelling, we are reminded how individual sufferings can seem so minuscule against the backdrop of epic-scale conflicts between nations and even civilisations.

Here the mammoth – or perhaps the Belfast-born author – quotes the O’Neills: “The Irish condition is a dichotomy of restlessness and fidelity. You’ll always love the aul country, and yet you’ll always hate it a wee bit too. You want to be home, but you want to leave. We Irish are natural explorers, yet we carry our nationhood with us.”

A similar dichotomy is observed as the mammoth and its fellow fossils conclude their conversations: Although the lives of humans are replete with tragedy, humour is all we have to get us through the hard times. Thus we have Mammoth, a fascinating book that is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, spirited and somber, witty and warm.

Chris Flynn’s Mammoth was published by University of Queensland Press in 2020. You can find a digital or print copy of the book in your local library.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “Delve into 13,000 years of history”, by Mountain Views Star Mail, on March 2, 2021, page 6.


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