The Gospel of the Eels

Patrik Svensson

Translated by Agnes Broomé
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28 May 2020
256 pages

Shortlisted for the Richard Jefferies Society and White Horse Book Shop Literary Prize

'This is one of those special books . . . Even if it were only a book about eels, it would be wonderful.' Sunday Times

‘What a joy! Patrick Svensson’s sinuous weaving of natural history, philosophy, psychology and autobiography is as compelling and rewarding as a silver eel’s return to the Sargasso Sea. I loved every moment.’ Isabella Tree, author of Wilding

I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream. Actually, I can’t remember us speaking at all. Maybe because we never did.

The European eel, Anguilla anguilla, is one of the strangest creatures nature ever created. Remarkably little is known about the eel, even today. What we do know is that it’s born as a tiny willow-leaf shaped larva in the Sargasso Sea, travels on the ocean currents toward the coasts of Europe – a journey of about four thousand miles that takes at least two years. Upon arrival, it transforms itself into a glass eel and then into a yellow eel before it wanders up into fresh water. It lives a solitary life, hiding from both light and science, for ten, twenty, fifty years, before migrating back to the sea in the autumn, morphing into a silver eel and swimming all the way back to the Sargasso Sea, where it breeds and dies.

And yet . . . There is still so much we don’t know about eels. No human has ever seen eels reproduce; no one can give a complete account of the eel’s metamorphoses or say why they are born and die in the Sargasso Sea; no human has even seen a mature eel in the Sargasso Sea. Ever. And now the eel is disappearing, and we don’t know exactly why.

What we do know is that eels and their mysterious lives captivate us.

This is the basis for The Gospel of the Eels, Patrik Svensson’s quite unique natural science memoir; his ongoing fascination with this secretive fish, but also the equally perplexing and often murky relationship he shared with his father, whose only passion in life was fishing for this obscure creature.

Through the exploration of eels in literature (Günter Grass and Graham Swift feature, amongst others) and the history of science (we learn about Aristotle’s and Sigmund Freud’s complicated relationships with eels) as well as modern marine biology (Rachel Carson and others) we get to know this peculiar animal. In this exploration, we also learn about the human condition, life and death, through natural science and nature writing at its very best.

As Patrik Svensson concludes: 'by writing about eels, I have in some ways found my way home again.'

Svensson's prose surges, eel-like, from languid to wriggling up your arm . . . There is a stillness to Svensson's writing that perfectly suits [both] the eel and his enigmatic father . . . This is a book about tenderness, slime and savagery . . . The power of the [father-son] relationships is in the unsaid.

Daily Telegraph

In this lovely, thoughtful blend of natural science and memoir, Patrik Svensson elevates the European eel . . . to an almost mythical status and interweaves accounts of its history, life cycle and cultural significance with stories of his own relationship with his road-paver father . . . We must hope this marvellous book is not the eel's eulogy.

Mail on Sunday

This is one of those special books . . . Even if it were only a book about eels, it would be wonderful . . . Svensson is such a good writer . . . I am not sure I like eels, but I loved this book.

Sunday Times