Book review: Lab Girl, Hope Jahren

By Lyn Loates

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Hope Jahren. Photo / Twitter.com/hopejahren
Hope Jahren. Photo / Twitter.com/hopejahren

Strangely, here we have one autobiography of two people.

One is Hope Jahren of rural Minnesota, daughter of a silent family whose roots were
transplanted from Norway in the 1800s. Her mother was absolute and emotionally distant; her father embedded in his science laboratory at the community college, teaching earth sciences and physics.

After class, Hope and her brothers would spend play-time in this modest lab. It was her father's sanctuary and here he flourished, an alluring prospect for a girl with an incomplete sense of family love, already searching for a thing to plug the gap.

The other is Hope Jahren, a tenured professor in paleobiology at the University of Hawaii with a swag of Fulbright Awards and Investigatory Medals on the back of which she was funded to build the university's respected Isotope Geobiology Laboratories.

Hope Jahren's life to date is laid candidly and in part, intimately, before us. By grit and grapple she demolishes all obstacles on the path to her goal.

Her methods are often unorthodox; her appetite for manic amounts of work breathtaking, and, excepting the perennial company of one similarly manic male colleague, her social landscape is
bare. No romance here, but an inspiring account of true friendship. Jahren's narration jogs along at a fit pace; her writing is a lovely piece of construction marred only by unconvincing dialogue.

But this book employs a clever conceit. It has Jahren's journey pausing at the end of each chapter, to include a series of rich essays about "why plants have been successful for so long". They variously explain the curious behaviours, the unalienable programming and the bloodless rebellions within the botanic world. She uses the anthropomorphic model thus allowing us to understand how the biosphere has fought gamely against human interference for millennia.

In these chapters Jahren's passion rises, setting them apart from the principal story; they are where she digs deep and delivers some of the loveliest writing I've seen in a while. Jahren married (happily) in her 30s and has a young, adored son, but you have to think she lives more comfortably in the sphere of microscopic observation than in the public dimension.

Lab Girl
By Hope Jahren
(Hachette NZ $40)

- Canvas

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