Billed as “a story of trees, science and love”, Hope Jahren’s memoir is a book that defies easy categorisation, and is an immensely pleasurable read.
It has all the potential ingredients of a conventional memoir – lonely Midwest girl battles mental illness to find love, and fulfilment in work. Thankfully, Jahren manages to sidestep such a well-worn tale.
Loosely ordered anecdotes, principally dealing with trees and what it is to be a scientist, give shape to Lab Girl.
From the ability of a cactus to sit for years without rain, to the way in which vines are rootless but still grow, to whether a tree has a “memory” of where it came from: Jahren’s fascination with plants is infectious. For a reader such as me to be captivated by this subject matter is testament to Jahren’s ability to write. I dropped every science subject as soon as humanly possible. If only I’d had Ms Jahren as a teacher.
I also love her discursions on the politics of research funding – those projects that receive grants and those that don’t, and the sheer grind of trying to raise funds for research, let alone salaries.
One of my favourite anecdotes is a chapter on the underbelly of the hospital system. Jahren worked as a runner delivering medications, and also as a packer. The detail with which she describes the process of sterilisation, and the potential for human error, before the medicine is literally in the bag, is mind-boggling.
Although I was relieved that this was not a conventional memoir, I was occasionally frustrated by the lack of personal backstory. I wanted to know a little more about Jahren’s family and the man she eventually fell in love with, but she maintains a guarded distance in writing about the self.
I also found the anthropomorphism twee at times – chapters on plants too neatly dovetailed into the life story: here’s the section on how plants reproduce – ah, here’s Jahren falling in love.
Interestingly the epilogue opens with a word of warning: “Plants are not like us.” Jahren is too good a scientist to fall totally prey to projecting ourselves onto the world of trees. Perhaps the demands of finding an order for her material made her slip. But she’s a wonderful writer, one who made me see the world anew, and for that I’m more than willing to forgive a little anthropomorphism. EF
Virago, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 23, 2016 as "Hope Jahren, Lab Girl". Subscribe here.