BOOK REVIEW: Operation Upset by Hayden Jeffery
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Question: why does any author begin to write a book?
There are as many answers as there are writers, of course. These days, for many, it is all about financial gain – but most books started in the sole ambition of becoming a second J K Rowling peter out after a chapter or two.
For some, it is more a labour of love, a compulsion.
Others still may seek a degree of immortality. I would suggest that Hayden Jeffery, the author of Operation Upset, his début novel, has journeyed between the last two.
How can a book confer immortality? Look on the back of any of them and you will see the ISBN code. This stands for International Standard Book Number. A copy of every single ISBN listed book published – however good, bad, long, short, dull or racy - must then be legally deposited with the British Library – where it remains for ever. Its book stacks must be phenomenal and ever-increasing. My own books, and now Operation Upset, will be held there, global cataclysms permitting, long after their authors are dust.
I find that idea rather comforting and suspect that Hayden Jeffery may feel the same way. Operation Upset started life decades ago when the author was a great deal younger as a distraction his mother was seriously ill. His career in veterinary laboratories meant witnessing the casual way in which animals were used then and disposed of (there is a particularly chilling scene of the killing of a rat which is surely an event he witnessed). This combination of trauma triggered the cathartic desire to write a book from the animal’s point of view. As a clinical research scientist, Jeffery is no animal rights saboteur, however; and so he is therefore most unusual in having chosen this fictional ‘animal liberation’ route.
Nor does the author condemn animal testing per se – he sees too many benefits for the animals concerned in terms of treatment of their own species as well as humanity.
The writing of the book reached a certain point but was then shelved, literally, in a folder, to be half-forgotten until much later in the author’s life.
The early chapters covering the escape from the laboratory and subsequent events feature a pair of highly feisty rabbits, a male named Old English (No 700) and a female called New Zealand (No 605). They break out of the clinical laboratory in which they are held to become entertainingly anarchic rabbit freedom fighters. At this point I should mention the illustrations: Jeffery is also a gifted artist and he brings the book to life with charming little vignette drawings of the animals and other characters. This has worked successfully everywhere except with the framing of the cover artwork, and it is the publisher’s, rather than the author’s responsibility to get that right. Any second edition should perhaps use one of the rabbit vignettes instead.
If you are considering purchasing Operation Upset for your grandchildren at this point, I would firmly suggest that you read it yourself first. Most books which anthropomorphise animals do of course sit firmly on the children’s bookshelf: think of the classics The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith, Watership Down by Richard Adams and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien.
Jeffery’s book is emphatically not a work written specifically for children, however: more Orwellian in feel, its ambition reflecting Animal Farm, but with a bit of anarchic Mad Max road movie action thrown in. I think it more likely to appeal to a rebellious teenager than a younger child. This is a story of grown-up rabbits with attitude, not cute little fluffy bunnykins.
Some scenes also reminded me, oddly, of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: notably those demonstrating the stoic endurance of Old George, the author’s unlikely-yet-likeable – not to mention psychic – animal liberator, as he is swept along (and finds his world utterly transformed by) events.
Make no mistake, this book, although its subject matter may sound strange or unpromising, is a page-turner. I found myself caught up (if slightly disbelievingly) in a world where the rabbits break free and they and other animals start to show humanity where we have gone wrong. Every action they take is designed to right wrongs (I particularly enjoyed the moments when the rabbits and their animal allies began to mug muggers). They seek to slow humanity down and to free us from our addiction to travel, TV, and instant communication.
The author clearly sees as these as the source of many of the world’s woes. During a Lockdown triggered by COVID 19, this premise does not feel as far-fetched as all that, does it? The planet already feels like it is starting to fight back: and that is the rock on which the author has constructed this highly unusual novel.
Jeffery picked up his manuscript again and dusted it off following his own diagnosis of cancer, a condition he has now lived with for eighteen years: as if that were not enough, he has experienced a stroke and a heart attack to boot. Through Operation Upset, the author therefore seeks to acknowledge the debt he and many others owe to the animals used in testing treatments. I see the author as personified within his narrative in the person of Old George, with his uncanny ability to understand what animals are thinking and feeling (this gift cannot have been easy in the laboratories) and his willingness to set aside his humanity to stand with the animals in a series of
ever more spectacular acts of defiant terrorism. This part of the storyline is why I can see the book adapting well to a screenplay for film or TV – the CGI effects today are so good that it would make the animal-human interaction contained within the plot even more realistic than its prose.
Can one ‘see the joins’ between the earlier and the later periods of writing? To a degree, yes, but that is probably inevitable. Some parts of the book now feel a little dated, for example: if written today the bunny beauty pageant might have a slightly more feminist edge. And while it may have been laudable in the dénouement to include an Asian Prime Minister, focusing on his accent is somewhat uncomfortable to 21 st century ears.
These however are minor details within the whole powerfully imagined story. Readers will encounter some entertaining and memorable secondary characters such as the expansive Rabbit the Bruce and the hapless Owl, who (spoiler alert) almost meets a soggy end in the Firth of Forth. I was a little
frustrated by the final chapters of the book after the narrative is removed from the key characters: the poignant and mysterious disappearance of one of them in the final pages is, however, evocative of Merlin and Arthur in TH White’s The Once and Future King. Perhaps he will return to save us all
When it comes to our lives, all most of us want is to be remembered: and remembered for our deeds, not our faults. I think the completion of this remarkable book, over such a long period of time and under such circumstances, is a mighty deed, and for that Francis Hayden Jeffery should be warmly commended.
Operation Upset by Hayden Jeffery is published by Austin Macauley, priced at £13 for a softback and £15 for a hardback edition. Find out more here
Reviewed by Vee Walker
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