A scandalous discrepancy links the 20 short stories contained within Ordinary Matter. They are fictions inspired by scientific achievements belonging to women over the course of the 20th century. Yet these same women are embedded in an undertaking – the encompassing system of explanation and exploration that displaced religion to become our modern creed – whose bias is male to its core.
Laura Elvery’s fictions rewrite the androcentric history of science in a manner both direct and powerfully oblique. Each piece in this volume is accompanied by the name of a pioneering woman scientist, from Marie Curie in 1903 to Donna Strickland in 2018, along with the date of recognition for their achievement – in chemistry, physics, or physiology or medicine – by Stockholm’s Nobel committee.
The mere existence of such an illustrious roll call should put paid to the unwarranted sexism that has underwritten scientific endeavour from Aristotle to Charles Darwin, to the lab bros of the present. For Elvery, however, these real women and their accomplishments are not a destination so much as a point of departure. She riffs on the legends or silences that surround their names. She approaches their extraordinary feats crabwise, or else casts the barest of glances in their direction. Each is nonetheless noticed, attended to – and woven into fictions that, in their sheer variousness and imaginative verve, kick science out of the laboratory and into a broader, messier human milieu.
Some stories are resolutely domestic: tales of broken marriages or scuttled careers, children longed for or abandoned out of necessity or ambition. They rhyme with rather than reflect the science attached to the tale. Realism is the norm but, at moments, a certain weirdness creeps in. Elvery also manages the trick of leaping between time and place while investing each new milieu with a swift, graceful accumulation of detail and atmosphere.
Occasionally, the life of the scientist is the story, making explicit what elsewhere is obscure – as in “Stockholm”, a short piece centred on Rosalyn Yarrow, who won the Nobel in physiology or medicine in 1977. Ahead of the Nobel ceremony, Yarrow is accosted by a young woman, a student who asks her advice on making one’s way as a woman in a male-dominated field.
Yarrow reflects that winning “does not mean only joy will follow”: “Winning does not stop sadness. You have to be tougher than all that and forget the faceless men from your past who failed to have faith in you, who pointed out that you were indeed a woman, and not a good bet to join their program, their hospital, their team.
“To be obsessed with fairness, with what is owed, well, that mustn’t enter into it. Not today. Certainly not tomorrow.”
Instead, she concludes: “Focus on all the luck you have received. Polish it like a coin.”
UQP, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2020 as "Laura Elvery, Ordinary Matter".
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