The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I really like quirky stories. I mean I like all kinds of books but if it features an animal (talking or not), or strange inventions (maybe steam-powered) then I’m always happy to give it a go. My bookcases are full of odd Scandinavian stories – I’m going to blame the fact that my favourite book ever is Alice in Wonderland and I have spent most of my life believing six impossible things before breakfast. So when Harpercollins mentioned they had a new book coming out which featured an immoral pharmaceuticals company, a variety of dysfunctional families and an enigmatic squirrel I knew I had to give it a try.

veblenThe story is about Veblen, a warm and quirky young woman who values a peaceful and useful life. Somehow she seems to have been damaged by her relationship with her mother but has fallen in love with Paul. He also seems to be hiding away from some family trauma – maybe they are meant for each other. However, he is a very different sort of personality: ambitious, easily seduced by priviledge and power. He seems to see Veblen as his saviour one moment and the next as some sort of project for improvement. The plot centres around Paul’s involvement with a big pharmaceutical company and the wedge this drives between him and gentle, animal-loving Veblen. Along the way we discover what the family secrets are (like most, not so terrible in the end unless you are the one who has to live with them), whether big Pharma really is evil and that there is a secret squirrel society (called the Nutkinistas. Obviously).

This is a clever book and also quite a charming one. The writing is engaging and very well thought out. In keeping with the fairly medically-based plot the language reflects that bias – at one point a character feels a ‘broad-spectrum uneasiness’ – but it isn’t heavy-handed. I shall look out for future books by Elizabeth McKenzie (and for the Nutkinistas…)




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