Book review

The Lastling by Philip Gross (2003)

It's easy to be surrounded by people and yet feel alone, don't you think? And sometimes, because there are so many people, you don't really realize how alone you are. Paris is alone. Wealthy, spoilt and neglected by her parents, Paris worships her Uncle Franklin, and is thrilled to bits when he takes her off with him on one of his expeditions to the Himalayas, because with his contacts he can take them to places where tourists are usually excluded. Alarmingly, Franklin and his associates are hunting rare and endangered species, and while Paris is delighted to be invited along on equal terms, she is less delighted to be invited to join The Ultimate Diners:

'Now...' said Franklin, savouring the moment. 'Has anyone guessed? No? If I were to say Rhodenessa caryophyllacea?'
Donald's face lit up. 'Not... the pink-headed duck? Which is known to be extinct.'
'Believed to be extinct,' said Franklin. 'Last definitively sighted in 1935. But I have friends in the birdwatching world. There were rumours. I've invested quite a lot of money in tracking down these little beauties.'
'So they're not extinct at all,' said Paris.
Franklin laughed, quite gently, and the laughter rippled round the table, as the guests grasped the joke, one by one.

What kind of man is her Uncle Franklin? I think Paris is already beginning to ask herself that question when Tahr, a young Buddhist monk, younger than Paris, blunders into the camp in a distraught state. He's been practising a life of isolation, self-denial and meditation but he brings news of another endangered species, so rare that Franklin's associates might be forgiven for thinking it mythical.

The Yeh-teh. Have you heard of it? Sometimes we call it the Abominable Snowman: a large creature that walks upright, that lives somewhere in the remotest mountains of Tibet. Now here's a creature that knows how it feels to be alone. Geng-sun is the very last of her species, and she's only young, about the same age as Paris and Tahr, in fact.

Well, obviously, Franklin is going to want to find the Yeh-teh, but for what foul purpose exactly I hardly dare think. And here we have an extraordinary story about the power of friendship across cultural barriers as these three young people fulfil theiryearning need for companionship in the world's loneliest place. Did I just call Geng-sun, last of the Yeh-teh, a person? That's for you to decide really, as you ponder the story.

A beautiful and sensitive, haunting story that explores the most basic question of all: what is it that makes us human? Earnestly recommended.

What can I read next?

Philip Gross is a compelling and hair-raising author. If you enjoy this book, take a look at his other book for not-too-young readers. It frightened me to death:

If you are fascinated by the question of what it is that makes us human, I think you will love this book by Peter Dickinson:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

The Lastling features in these lists: