Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rebecca Stott approaches evolution in a thriller

Another fascinating story about the origins of evolution, this novel tells the tale of a British medical student working in Paris in 1815. There he meets the famous naturalist Cuvier and a cast of characters that bring that historical moment alive. (This novel makes an interesting companion piece to Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures.)

The Coral Thief

Rebecca Stott’s new novel, The Coral Thief (320 pages, Spiegel and Grau, $15), tells the story of the handsome young Daniel Conner, who sets out from England to study natural history in Paris before beginning his medical studies at home. The year is 1815, and Napoleon has just been defeated at Waterloo and is on his way to permanent exile in St. Helena island in the Atlantic Ocean.

Daniel Conner, with blue eyes, dark curly hair, and a bright smile, has big plans for his study in Paris and his future success. He has letters of introduction from his professor back in Edinburgh, and he has samples of coral, containing recently discovered fossils, that he is planning to present to the great Baron Cuvier as a way of gaining access to that man’s laboratories. Unfortunately, though, Daniel meets a darkly mysterious Frenchwoman who relieves him of all his belongings on the mail coach he is riding into Paris. This puts him in a difficult situation, to say the least, and he finds he begins his time in Paris dealing with the Chief of the Bureau of Security, Henri Jagot.

Confused by Jagot’s interest in his case, and complaining to his new friend in Paris, Fin Robinson, that he will never be able to work with Cuvier, he is accosted once more by Lucienne Barnard, the woman from the coach, who compliments him on the work in his notebooks and tells him she will return his materials before too long. This is almost too much for Daniel to take in, but when Jagot picks him up again and tells him that this Frenchwoman is a master thief and someone he has been tracking for years, he recognizes that he is in over his head. Jagot insists that he should report back if she ever makes contact with him again.

Matters go from bad to worse, however, and the story becomes more engaging, when Daniel admits to himself that he has fallen deeply in love with the mysterious Lucienne. It is not just her beauty that attracts him; he is also astonished at her intelligence. He has had a narrow education in Edinburgh, and she begins by challenging his beliefs and suggesting that there are different ways of looking at natural history. She favors the transformism of scientists, like Lamarke, who believe that species have changed over time. Cuvier, and everyone Daniel had studied with, believed that God created the world in an unchanging pattern and that all the different species needed merely to be discovered.

This playful intellectual material gives some substance to a story that becomes a real thriller. Lucienne is trying to steal a diamond that Cuvier has hidden and Daniel is committed to helping her. But Jagot is on to the plot and is trying to trap her and her accomplices in the act of theft. All the key action happens at night time in the underground passages of Paris, and Stott realizes the potential of this setting for the harrowing exploits she describes.

In the end, Daniel looks back on this time with nostalgia and regret for the contacts he has lost. But it was also an education for him. For those of us reading the novel, it is an education too. This moment in natural history, just before Darwin, and this point in the history of Europe, just after Napoleon, make a wonderful tale. Rebecca Stott has brought this story to life in remarkable ways. She has a great power of historical narration, and the figure of Daniel Connor makes a vivid narrator. This is a story to savor.

Rebecca Stott

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