My second book review is Tracy Chevalier – Remarkable Creatures.
On one level I had been looking forward to this book, about Mary Anning’s successful fossil hunting, for some time. On another level I had been disappointed in Chevalier’s Burning Bright about William Blake. It is a difficult balance to write the story of a famous historical character from the view point of a contemporary without getting mired in the story of that person, which is what happened in my view in Burning Bright. However, despite the sometimes painfully honest picture of Elizabeth Philpot, the focus remained clear in Remarkable Creatures. The novel was a successful depiction of the surprisingly emotional search for fossils.
The real remarkable creatures of the book are the two women, blocked variously by their gender, class and the religious constraints of the time from receiving the full accolades of the scientific world. For it becomes not just a matter of spotting the first examples of extinct creatures which throw the creationist clergy into confusion, but of recovering the bones, arranging them in an accurate way, and receiving the monetary reward. Various sharp practices of displaying the fossils inappropriately and refusing to give Mary the credit she was due leave the modern reader speechless, while the emotional upheaval that the female characters undergo seem deeply unfair.
This novel has a clear pair of narrative voices and even the non scientific reader with a limited knowledge of fossils can be impressed with this book. It is not just a woman’s book, but a deeply enjoyable and satisfying read for anyone with even a passing historical interest. The clothing, the lifestyles, and the limitations faced by the women are faithfully examined, and this is a book to be enjoyed and relished.