The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World
By Patrik Svensson
256 pp. Ecco. $18.
This book received quite a lot of buzz when it came out, far more than a book about eels really ought to get, if you ask me. But this isn’t exactly about eels — though, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of eel facts here, far more than I really needed or, a day after finishing this, can even remember now — it’s about a son’s relationship with his father.
Swedish author Patrik Svensson used to go eel fishing with his father, and so eels serve as a tight bond between them. Svensson shares those fond memories here, and uses eels as a way of writing about his father’s illness and death.
Certainly, if you were to step into a bookshop and pick this up, expecting a “book of eels,” you would not be disappointed. I knew nothing about eels before this, other than the somewhat villainous real estate they occupy in my mind from having watched Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” a few too many times when I was younger, but this taught me a great deal about them.
In some ways, “The Book of Eels” is the literary equivalent to the animal planet documentary you have on while you’re busy cooking or whatever else. It’s pleasant, generally interesting, but never entirely diverting. Assuming you have the necessary certification, you could take this book in and pilot a 747 at the same time without much of an issue.
Why this has received any sort of buzz outside of the author’s native Sweden is, I imagine, because it’s ultimately a rather touching story about a man’s relationship with his father. Having read my share of Scandinavian fiction and nonfiction, I take it that Scandinavian men — or at least older Scandinavian men — are somewhat harder, less emotional, than certain of their foreign counterparts.
Svensson’s own relationship with his father reiterates that, though “The Book of Eels” reads as something of an anti-A Death in the Family, as Knausgaard’s fraught relationship with his father ends up becoming a running theme throughout all six books in his “My Struggle” series, of which he spares no detail.
Svensson, on the contrary, writes about his relationship with his father through eel facts and recounting the eel’s relationship with famous thinkers of past centuries, including Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, and Rachel Carson.
At one point Svensson gets into how economic conditions in Sweden contributed to the shaping of the society, how his grandmother was forced to work at an early age. This is all contrary to most outsiders’ view of Sweden as a socialist paradise and a “nanny state.” But it’s likely that Svensson wrote this with a Swedish audience in mind, so he doesn’t spend much time digging into the conditions that shaped his father. We learn only that his father never knew his own father, but the matter is moved aside to make room for more digressions into the eel.
I appreciate any effort to draw attention to a creature that’s been largely overlooked in human history, but I couldn’t help but feel that sometimes the eels got in the way of the deeper story. Still, this is a story worth diving into.