Review: Vivien Horler
The Seventh Son, by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson Heinemann)
If you Google the significance of “the seventh son” in folklore, you find that from the 16th century a seventh son was believed to have psychic powers.
Seth, the boy and young man at the centre of this startling tale, does seem have such powers, but he is an only child and the identity of his father is a mystery. He is however the seventh subject in a bizarre scientific experiment.
At the beginning of this story, set slightly ahead of the present in 2030, Talissa Adam is a young American post-doc who is looking for a job. Her area is the “distant but discoverable human past”.
A Boston institute offers her a post, but there’s a catch – she will have to fund her first year herself. And there is no money for that.
Then she reads an interesting advert in a journal: a London organisation, the Parn Institute, which focuses on genomics, has proposed a joint study with the NHS into the role of surrogate mothers in IVF and why its success rate is so low.
Parn was founded by Lukas Parn, something of a maverick who happens to be very, very rich.
Talissa wonders: could she offer herself as a surrogate, to be paid by Parn, which would enable her to fund her first year at the Boston institute? It’s worth a try, and she heads to London.
A battery of tests later, she becomes one of eight women selected to carry a baby for a couple.
The Parn Institute encourages the surrogate mother to meet the hopeful biological parents, and Talissa and Mary and Alaric Pederson go on a camping trip to France. They get on well and all is set.
But what none of them know, and nor do most of those who work for Lukas Parn, is that he has another – deeply secret – project in mind. Aware of recent research suggesting that many humans carry some Neanderthal genes, Parn wonders whether it would be possible to substitute a father’s sperm for that of a Neanderthal.
The scientist who heads the institute, a resentful man whose ethics turn out to be flexible when a reward is offered, somewhat reluctantly agrees to Parn’s plan, and the substitution is made.
In due course Seth is born, and it soon becomes clear that he is slightly different from his peers. He matures early, is short and pretty hairy, and has an impressive brow ridge although, according to one of the scientists in the know, one that is less than Darwin’s.
Seth does well, graduating from Cambridge with an engineering degree. Then Talissa, in possession of a curl of Seth’s hair given to her in a locket by Mary and Alaric, gets his DNA checked. At which point all hell breaks loose.
Is Seth really human? Does he have the same rights as everyone else?
The press is on to it straight away, as are weird right-wing groups in Britain and the US.
There is much kindness and love in The Seventh Son, but also some appalling inhumanity on the part of the Parn scientists who have not thought through or not cared about the effects of their experiment on a young man and his family.
The Seventh Son is a beautifully written cautionary tale, but an ultimately sad account of an outrageous experiment by scientists who believe the end justifies the means, whatever the cost in personal lives.