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.'
Originally published in Swedish in 2019 as Ålevangeliet.
Patrik Svensson is an arts and culture journalist at Sydsvenskan newspaper. He lives with his family in Malmö, Sweden. The Book of Eels is his first book.
"In this lovely, thoughtful blend of natural science and memoir, Patrik Svensson elevates the European eel [...] to an almost mythical status [...] We must hope this marvellous book is not the eel's eulogy."
– Mail on Sunday
"Extraordinary [...] Such is his skill that the echoes and parallels he finds never seem stretched. It's as if the eel's mysteriousness is snaking out, beyond its extraordinary life cycle and uncanny ability to confound scientists, and into the writing."
"This beguiling book [...] completely won me over to these astonishing, mysterious creatures [...] Beautifully written, The Gospel of the Eels left me in awe of the animal."
– Sunday Times 'Nature Books of the Year'
"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
"The best mysteries are those science hasn't yet cracked, and top of the list comes the sex life of eels."
– Melanie Reid, The Times
"I'm still not sure I like eels, but I loved this book."
– Sunday Times
"Just as the eel glides between freshwater and salt, Svensson's book swims in the seas of both natural history and memoir. Svensson's father took the young Patrik eel fishing often, and their beautifully rendered nocturnal outings have the feel of occult ritual."
– New York Times
"Drawing from literature, science and his own studies, Svensson inspires readers to see eels in a whole new way."
– Los Angeles Times, '21 new and classic books to keep you in touch with the natural world'
"There's an underlying theme here that made me think science is about discovery, not always about perfect answers."
– Forbes, 'Best Summer Reads For Those Stuck Inside Working Remotely'
"Svensson's book, like its subject, is a strange beast: a creature of metamorphosis, a shape-shifter that moves among realms. It is a book of natural history, and a memoir about a son and his father. It is also an exploration of literature and religion and custom, and what it means to live in a world full of questions we can't always answer."
– New Yorker
"An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death [...] an intriguing natural history [...] that sheds as much light on humans as on eels."
– Kirkus Reviews
"Without a doubt, the most delicious natural history book of the decade. Svensson's prose effortlessly undulates between his own personal experience and a thousand years of scientific inquiry. But it's his call to conservation – not just of this noble eel but of our memories both personal and cultural – that truly elevates this remarkably poignant work."
– Mark Siddall, Curator and Professor, American Museum of Natural History
"A wonderful read. The story of the eel is one of the most fascinating on the planet, but equally fascinating is the story Patrik Svensson tells so well here about the mysteries of being."
– Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven
"With lyricism and sharp clarity, Patrik Svensson lets us in on the secret dream-like world of the eel. As we move deeper into a book that intertwines beautiful nature writing with a moving memoir of a quiet father and a loyal son – as well as healthy doses of philosophical thought from Aristotle to Freud – we get to know one of Earth's most unknowable creatures and revel in a life so different than our own."
– David Gessner, author of All the Wild That Remains
"What an amazing book. About eels! – a haunting and extraordinary creature. Patrik Svennson explores both their mystery and the science that has brought them into focus in the last few decades and made them seem a vivid indicator species for the health of our planet."
– Robert Haas, author of Summer Snow