This lablit novel is set in a research institute in north London. The story is centred on a virology research lab and its work.
An old lady dies. A cat dies. More cats die – could it be suspicious? Artie is a young virologist who’s recently started her own lab and is looking to make (more of) a name for herself. An eccentric epidemiologist works just down the corridor from her lab. These are some of the ingredients of Jenny Rohn’s latest lablit novel, Cat Zero.
Cat Zero is an everyday story of virus research, set in a research institute in Mill Hill, north London. Its author, Jenny Rohn, leads a cell biology research lab at University College London.
The book is a great read – a really gripping and engaging novel. It’s a tale full of surprise and detailed plotting, with some characters who you will love and some who will repel you. All of them spring to life in the author’s hands. The setting for the story, a modern but slightly peculiar biological research institute, is less familiar than the backdrop for most novels. The institute is vividly drawn and is almost a character in its own right.
The story moves along at a very good pace and the pages keep turning – it’s difficult to stop reading. The plot takes some directions you might not predict, but is always believable. Perhaps there’s a little bit of what Graham Greene called his ‘entertainments’, where the combination of chance events make a great tale but stretch the bounds of likelihood.
As the setting is a research institute, the novel includes many insights into life and work in scientific research labs – the joys of discovery and the long hours of preparation involved. Its setting in Mill Hill suggests that the fictional institute may have a bit of NIMR (National Institute for Medical Research) in it. Jenny Rohn has previously worked at the London Research Institute (LRI) so I suspect that it too has contributed some of the atmosphere. The novel is full of characters, oddities, minor politicking, misogyny and of course science. We are introduced to the pressures of a science career and the rewards, and the intense teamwork and collaboration that is inherent to modern research. The manner in which the science is introduced is matter-of-fact, not pedagogic. The story about the science progresses alongside the human relationship elements and the later thriller elements, never overshadowing them, but integral to them. Jenny Rohn skilfully shows that researchers have an element of the detective in them as they sift the evidence and weigh up the possibilities. Hence it has the flavour of a detective story at times, though there are no detectives in it.
I did have one or two pedantic quibbles of fact. On a number of occasions the characters make a journey from Mill Hill to Hampstead by train, as though this is a direct line. Those two stations are on different branches of the Northern line, though it would indeed be lovely if they were directly connected. Some of the incidental talk about reading research papers seems rooted in a print-on-paper view of journals. This seemed a bit out-of-date to me (speaking as a librarian). But these are small worries.
This book is a really enjoyable read – I loved it and I’ve spoken to colleagues at the Crick who’ve read and enjoyed the book. One of them tweeted that it is “a fun read with mathematical models playing a key role”. We have a copy of Cat Zero in our library collection and I hope other libraries serving researchers will also acquire copies. You can get it from Amazon.
Jenny’s PhD was on the evolution of feline leukaemia virus, which plays a part in this novel, and since then she has worked in the biotech industry and in science publishing before returning to academic research and starting her own lab. She has written two previous novels, established the LabLit.com genre and website and Fiction Lab (a science book club). She is also a regular and popular blogger and speaker.
Jenny is a friend and fellow blogger on the OT site. That certainly influenced me to read the book, but had no bearing on my enjoyment of it. If I hadn’t liked the book I would just have said nothing!
A version of this blogpost was initially posted on to Amazon as a review of the book.