It’s easy to see why a novelist might be attracted to an inventor – they share an urge to create, along with a compulsion to explore life’s mysteries. Whether Samantha Hunt found such a kindred spirit in Nikola Tesla isn’t clear, but her fascination with this unsung scientific genius is apparent in her retelling, or reinvention, of his life. It is an ambitious conflation of fact and fiction that pays fitting, if warts-and-all, tribute to Tesla (1856-1943), a Croatian-born Serb who pioneered dozens of advances in electricity, radar and telecommunications. He was ahead of his time, scientifically, but his purist approach to the ‘art’ of invention put him at odds with the prevailing mores of capitalism and celebrity in his adoptive America. Profit didn’t interest Tesla, other than as a source of funds for his work, nor was he driven by an egotistical desire for acclaim. To him, the point of invention wasn’t ‘to make things that people want to buy’ but, rather, ‘to improve people’s lives’. Technological innovation ought to glorify science, not the scientist. That was Tesla’s ethos. And much good it did him: he was under-appreciated at the time and neglected by posterity. It didn’t help that he was better at coming up with ideas than applying for patents. Only when it was too late, as a delusional eccentric living out his last days in impoverished obscurity, did Tesla come to resent the likes of Marconi and Edison for claiming the fame, fortune and prizes that were rightly his.
On the face of it, a story set in a bygone age, grounded in meticulous research and with a historical figure as its hero, cuts a stark contrast to Hunt’s highly regarded debut, The Seas, an ethereal tale of the relationship between a traumatised Iraq War veteran and a young