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Book Worm… Kangaroo by John Simons: A Review

By Jack Ashby, on 19 April 2013

Book Worm

Book Worm – that’s Grant and a lugworm

I’m writing this second review in the predictably punned “Book Worm” occasional series whilst in the desert town of Alice Springs. As I like to match my reading with my surroundings, I’m reviewing Kangaroo by John Simons, published in December as part of Reaktion’s Animal Series.

What this book seems to attempt to do is tackle the kangaroo from a variety of angles – biological, ecolgical, historical and anthropological. It is extremely generously illustrated (on nearly every page). There is sometimes, however, no obvious connection between the image and the neighbouring text which can make things a bit confusing, particularly when he is describing a specific visual scene without providing the appropriate image.

Where the book succeeds well is the coverage of kangaroos’ European history. There are some interesting insights into how the kangaroo was portrayed following Cook and Banks’ voyage, and the subsequent portrait by George Stubbs. Two coincidences here. One is that I wrote a piece about the failure of Cook to accurately describe kangaroos, relying too heavily on familiar species as comparisons. Second is that the famous Stubbs painting in question is currently being held under an export bar by the British Government whilst the Australian National Gallery is trying to acquire it. The inevitable difference in press coverage in the two countries is worthy of its own article.

I digress – the point Simons makes is that this Stubbs painting is in fact the avatar of the kangaroo that Europeans adopt, in the place of actual kangaroo. Some of the arguments have holes, but it makes for an interesting discussion.

Other valuable historical information involves the first arrivals of living kangaroos into Europe and how they were portrayed. The book forms a useful account of this story.

Unfortunately the other approaches to kangaroos I wanted to read about left me significantly wanting. A discussion on the controversy of modern kangaroo culling in Australia should be essential for such a book. Despite claims to the contrary on the back cover, the account barely goes beyond “kangaroo culling is a very devisive issue in Australia”, which is as uniformative as it is irritating. Simons also avoids any significant discussion of indiginous Australian relationships with kangaroos by saying that others are more capable of him of giving an account. Whilst that is no doubt the case, the book’s blurb suggests it is included.

A significant portion of the book is given over to making the obvious point that few/any other animals worldwide have become so emblamatic of a country than the roo is to Australia. Simons does this with a long account of the many companies, sports teams and government initiatives that famously (too famously to even bother mentioning) use kangaroos in Australia. I don’t think anyone with an interest in kangaroos wants to spend too much time reading that they feature on the Qantas logo or that the national soccer team are the Socceroos. Sadly all this takes the space that could be used to expand on their many notable biological adaptations or their evolutionary history.

At £9.99 the European history of the kangaroo makes it worth a read, but to my mind I was more disappointed with the opportunities missed than I was interested in the stories told.

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