Book Review – The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson

Dear Readers, I have some history with eels. When I was growing up in Stratford in East London, they were not only considered a delicacy when you went to the pie and mash shop (stewed or jellied eels also formed part of the menu), but you could buy them at the local fish shop in Angel Lane (long since buried under the 1960s shopping centre). The eels would be slithering in a white plastic tray, and if you wanted one, the fishmonger would grab one by the tail and chop into pieces in a matter of seconds before wrapping everything up in white paper. Sometimes the bits of fish would have a mind of their own, and would still be moving about in the shopping bag by the time you got home.

Once, I was holding hands with Mum when we both noticed an eel on the verge of wriggling over the edge of the tray. The fishmonger was arguing with a customer about the cost of some shrimps and winkles and so he hadn’t noticed. I glanced at Mum and she squeezed my hand while we both held our breath. The eel made it over the edge, plopped on to the pavement and wriggled away down the drain to safety. I sometimes wonder if the animal made it to the Sargasso Sea, which is where all the eels in the world are said to breed.

And therein hangs the tale told in Patrik Svensson’s wonderful book. It tells the story of what we’ve managed to discover so far about the secret life of eels, part of which is their complex and enigmatic life story. We have, for instance, found tiny baby eels in the region of the Sargasso Sea, but have never found an adult eel. Sigmund Freud spent several months as a student in Trieste, cutting up eels and trying to find a male one, without ever finding any eel testicles. You can deduce many things about his later theories from this period, I’m sure. Rachel Carson, better known for her work on DDT in ‘Silent Spring’ started by writing about the sea and its creatures for The Atlantic magazine. Ely Cathedral in England is named for the eels found in the local fen country, and in Sweden they celebrate an eel festival – Swedish fishermen would pay for their fishing rights in actual eels.

What makes this book more than ‘just’ a natural history book, though, is the way that Svensson interweaves the story of his relationship with his father, as they try out different ways of catching eels, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. He reveals so much about his Dad, and about how he himself grows from a boy to a man. There is much in this book to savour, and much to learn, and lots to think about, not least when Svensson turns to the precarious future of the eel, and thinks about what it means not just for this species, but for all of us.

Is it possible to imagine a world without eels? Is it possible to erase a creature that has existed for at least forty million years, that has survived ice ages and seen continents drift apart, that when humans found their place on this planet had already been waiting for us for millions of years, that has been the subject of so many traditions and celebrations and myths and stories?

No, is the instinctive answer, that’s not how the world works. What exists, exists, and what doesn’t exist is always in some ways unimaginable. Imagining a world without eels would be like imagining a world without mountains or oceans, air or soil, bats or willow trees. 

Yet at the same time all life is changeable, and we will all change one day, and it was probably at one point, at least for a few people, just as difficult to imagine a world without the dodo or without Steller’s sea cow. Just as I couldn’t, once, imagine a world without Nana or Dad. 

And yet they’re both gone now. And the world is still here”.

I heartily recommend this thought-provoking and beautifully-written book. You can buy it in lots of places, and here’s one of them.


3 thoughts on “Book Review – The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson

  1. John

    A most excellent review m’dear and I shall be adding this book upon my want list (perhaps a welcome birthday present off G). Eels are truly an iconic fish and often overlooked for more ‘flashy’ species, they have drifted in and out of my life at various stages and I consider them with an almost mystic reverence.


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