Book Review: The Gospel of the Eels

Title: The Gospel of the Eels, (Original Title: Ålevengeliet)

This books is also listed under the title: The Book of Eels.

Author: Patrik Svensson

Published: 2019 English translation: May 2020

BLURB

I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream. Actually, I can’t remember us speaking at all. Maybe because we never did.

Remarkably little is known about the European eel, Anguilla anguilla. So little, in fact, that scientists and philosophers have, for centuries, been obsessed with what has become known as the “eel question”: Where do eels come from? What are they? Are they fish or some other kind of creature altogether? Even today, in an age of advanced science, no one has ever seen eels mating or giving birth, and we still don’t understand what drives them, after living for decades in freshwater, to swim great distances back to the ocean at the end of their lives. They remain a mystery.

THE REVIEW

Sometimes, taking a leap of faith on a book can lead to the most unexpected experiences.

I’m no stranger to emotional reactions brought on by books. But, if someone told me a book about eels would make me cry, I wouldn’t have believed them. Yet I did. 

The Gospel of the Eels, is written by Swedish journalist Patrik Svensson. In 2019 it won the prestigious Swedish literary award the “August Prize” for Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year

Don’t let the non-fiction part intimidate you. This book is so much more than a dry textbook about eels. It tells a sprawling, thoughtful, philosophical, provocative, and emotional story. 

Through the history of humanity’s fascination with the secretive fish know as the eel, the author takes us on a journey; one that begins and ends with a boy and his father. 

If you’re looking for an academic, natural science text on eels, this is not the book for you. The Gospel of Eels is dense with facts, but the language is one of a novel and not difficult to understand for a layperson. 

The book is one cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end. But, it reads like a collection of short stories tied together with a frame narrative. The most accurate description I’ve seen, describes the book as a natural science memoir. 

The reason this book works so well is that Patrik Svensson tells the story of the eel, by putting this fish in several historical and human contexts.

In ancient Greece, we’re introduced to Aristotle and his theory on how eels reproduce (spoiler alert: he was wrong).

In nineteenth-century Triestewe observe a nineteen-year-old Sigmund Freud as he begins his career by dissecting hundreds of eels in search of their elusive testicles.

A few decades later, we get to know the revolutionary biologist Rachel Carson and find out what lead up to her iconic bookSilent Spring.

In between these pit-stops through history, Svensson recollects how the eels have impacted the relationship between him and his father; this is the most poignant and emotional part of the story. It’s lovely. 

That being said, The Gospel of the Eels is not uplifting; melancholy runs through many of the wild threads of this story. 

It discusses difficult subjects like The Troubles and The Basque separatist movement, examining how the practice of fishing for eel can be an act of rebellion or cultural identity, a problematic one as the eel is close to extinction.  

In all of these branching stories, we follow the rebellious eel through its four stages of metamorphoses. We watch as science in vain tries to untangle its mysteries.

It turns out the eel is an anarchist; it refuses to conform to our need for definitive answers.  

The Gospel of the Eels is a story filled with emotions, questions, and self-examination. The parts dealing with the author’s relationship with his father is touching and multifaceted. But, surprisingly, the parts of the story that truly moved me were about the eels. 

Personal opinions aside, this is a book for a specific type of reader. Not because of the subject: if you’re not fascinated by this fish when you begin this book, you will be by the end of it. 

But, I think many readers will dislike the fragmented storytelling. This book sprouts branches in all directions, and I believe many will find it unfocused. 

The Gospel of the Eels is not a book that fits neatly into a genre. It’s a book about eels and a father-son relationship. But it’s also a philosophical discussion about finding meaning, and a debate on humanity’s devastating impact on nature.

It’s all of those things wrapped up in a style of storytelling that might be too unleashed for some. 

If you prefer a straightforward narrative that fits neatly into a genre label, you will probably be frustrated by this book. Like the eel, it refuses to conform. 

If you’re more like me, a person who enjoys stories that, unexpectedly, takes you in a direction you never saw coming, you will enjoy it. 

As a complete novice on the subject of eels, every new chapter and person introduced felt like an adventure. 

I found it fascinating to follow this several millennia-long journey of trying to understand and demystify the eel. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I adored The Gospel of the Eels. But, this is a book for a specific type of reader. It’s for people who enjoy being surprised and challenged. 

Despite focusing on the storytelling and emotional aspects of the book in this review, this is a non-fiction book filled with facts and uncomfortable truths. 

It’s also sad; The Gospel of the Eels is not entertaining. It’s thoughtful, melancholy, beautiful, and provoking. Truth be told, some parts of this book made me profoundly sad. 

But, I think that’s the point. 

The book deals with difficult subjects, both on the intimate, human level, and broader issues like politics, endangered species, and environmental issues.  

Despite the melancholy tone, this book is funny, and charming, with interesting stories and facts. 

However, The Gospel of the Eels greatest strength is that it manages to enthuse its readers about the eel. It tells a fascinating story about a rebel fish that steadfastly refuses to play by our rules. 

Time and time again throughout this story, I found myself delighted when the eel, once again, thwarted attempts by scientists to solve its mysteries.

Deciding to read The Gospel of the Eels was a gamble.

It was one of those books I’d heard critics praise, but a book about eels? 

I’m so glad I decided to step-out of my comfortzone and take a chance on this book. Even though we’re only half-way through this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Gospel of the Eels becomes one of my Favorite Reads of the Year.  

The Gospel of the Eels was phenomenal. I highly recommend it. 


My Rating: 8/10

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