There are so many ideas crammed into this slender book that it’s natural to feel disoriented by it, but I’d wager that’s a reaction with which Ward would be content. Oh, and the answer to Rachel’s question? Hume’s Missing Shade of Blue. I’ll let you work that one out for yourselves.
Brimming with close observation, the book is especially good on children. The son Arthur has ‘an old-fashioned, faraway set to his eyes and brow, as though he had waged some mythical battle with the gods and been punished with the life of a human boy’. Later, there’s a virtuoso section that takes the reader into the consciousness of the ant itself: ‘My dreams were of the colony and hers were often of me.’ Later still, there’s a thrillingly bonkers set piece from the point of view of Arthur during his birth. While there are moments of narrative confusion, the sheer literary ambition on show is impressive, with Ward producing a highly original first novel that also echoes European experimentalists such as Kundera and Krasznahorkai.
Ward’s ingenious fiction debut stands in a tradition of philosophical fiction: Voltaire’s Candide, Sartre’s Nausea. It sets out to be intellectually provocative; to tease, vitalise and liberate our thought processes... But the success of Ward’s venture inevitably depends on the quality of the writing. This is often moving, exuberant and sensitive. We care about her characters and share their hopes and fears. Ward’s investigation and practice of empathy is easily the best thing in the book. Reading Love and Other Thought Experiments, not least the virtuoso chapter in which the narrator impersonates the ant’s thought processes, I couldn’t help recalling George Eliot’s squirrel in Middlemarch. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing ... the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”