John Gribbin

It All Began in Africa

The Man who Found the Missing Link: The Extraordinary Life of Eugene Dubois


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 416pp £20 order from our bookshop

Java Man: How Two Geologists Changed the Course of Evolution


Little,Brown 256pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

There is a kind of television documentary that relies heavily on invented dialogue to convey information without the use of a narrator. This can work well for that medium. But there is also a kind of book that uses the same device when dealing with historical figures, without any justification at all. The Man Who Found the Missing Link is an example. The story told by the anthropologist Pat Shipman is an important and interesting one: that of the life of Eugène Dubois, who, just over a hundred years ago, travelled to the Dutch East Indies and discovered the fossil remains of Java man, which were seen at the time as the first direct evidence of an evolutionary link between human beings and apes. But the way she tells the story completely alienates the reader (or this one, at least). From the beginning, where we are let in on the (made up) thoughts of an elderly Dubois as he reads a letter from an old friend in Java, to the end, where we are privy to those of hypothetical German soldiers on patrol in occupied Holland, the best that can be said of Shipman’s style is that at least it is consistent. It is also verbose, and the story could have been told more effectively in half the space.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,
    • 'The heroic male nude could not, I think, be used today to signify civic pride and glory', as Michelangelo’s 'David… ,
    • 'Munch’s later works show us a man liberated from the torments that gave rise to some of the best-known early works… ,