Book Review

Deadly Beautiful – Liana Joy Christensen

If Liana Joy Christensen had been my Science teacher when I was at school, (instead of the grim individual whose name I have mercifully forgotten), I would have grown up being Science and Maths savvy. I would not glaze over and make my mouth twitch in the company of scientists and mathematicians. This book is educational, informative, entertaining and above all – a plea for co-existence. It taught me many things about inter-species conflict and did this with warmth and wit.

So – here are the facts: most of the lethal killers of the animal kingdom, from snakes and spiders and scorpions to stingrays and stonefish and sharks are more in danger from us than to us. All you arachnophobes and ophidiophobes and selachopophobes and lupophobes out there, ‘in terms of being the most dangerous, we are humbled by microbes,’ (p 2). That’s right; we’re more likely to be killed by bacteria than large predator species or small deadly creepy crawlies. In the chapter on snakes, for example, I found out that pregnant rattlesnakes come together to bask in the sun at the same location every year and in the winter, both sexes den together somewhere cool and not too dry. Having grown up in India, I had a healthy fear/respect/awe of snakes, both actual and mythological. The cobra was an impressive beast that was worshipped and revered and snake charmers regularly appeared in market places. This sentence on page 34 did not substantially decrease my fear – ‘it is definitely possible to be bitten by a snake’s head for up to an hour after the act of decapitation.’ It is comforting to know antivenom exists!

The facts, stories, anecdotes and statistics are woven together with the deft touch of a poet, and poetry is Liana Christensen’s first calling. There are many fascinating interludes in this book, with beautiful illustrations by Ian Faulkner and the gifting of the ‘Damascus Awards’ to former animal killers who saw the error of their ways and became conservationists. I was especially intrigued when this award was bestowed on Jim Corbett, because anyone who grew up in India surely knows about the Jim Corbett National Park. What I didn’t know was that Jim Corbett was an avid big cat hunter from the age of ten, before securing the first and largest national park in India.

This book makes a powerful case for co-existence in a marvelously readable manner, replete with references to literature, folk traditions and pop culture. I have an enhanced appreciation of the dilemmas of co-existence based on disappearing habitat, fear and aggression. We humans are such a small speck on the existence continuum and we have made such a devastating impact on the ability of other species to live alongside us. Do yourself a favour and read this book, then recommend it to your friends and if you are a parent, encourage your child’s school library to purchase a copy.

I will end this review with a few lines from a poem that was part of my English studies at school, by the Jewish Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel, titled ‘Night of the Scorpion.’ Let us listen to the poets for they are the seers.

‘I remember the night my mother
was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
of steady rain had driven him
to crawl beneath a sack of rice.
Parting with his poison – flash
Of diabolic tail in the dark room –
he risked the rain again.’

Deadly Beautiful: Vanishing Killers of the Animal Kingdom
By Liana Joy Christensen
Illustrations by Ian Faulkner
Exisle Publishing Limited, 2011.