Monday, April 18, 2011

Curiosity & Remarkable Creatures

Both books - resting on my pool table.

A little over a year ago, Joan Thomas & Tracy Chevalier each had a novel published within months of each other. Each novel focussed on the life and times of Mary Anning, an impoverished fossil finder, born at Lyme Regis in 1799, who in time became increasingly respected as a significant early palaeontologist. If I had written and published such a novel, only to discover that mine was only one of two such novels, I would have bayed so loudly and plaintively at the moon that people in the northern hemisphere would have had to run for cover. It would not have been pretty. Seriously though, for the reader, there is a real dilemma: Which of the two books should I read? Or - if I read both, which one should I read first?

By sheer fluke, I ended up reading Thomas’ novel first , and then Chevalier’s. As I traveled around England and Ireland last fall on a research trip of my own, it was usually the last prose of the day before I keeled over onto my pillow. Not that my reading of the novel suffered from that. In fact, I had to be quite strict with myself. Only two more pages, Sharon, and then lights out.  I realized that I was starting to sound like my mother.

It is impossible for me to say how much the first read influenced the second. Since both were based on the historical record, there were considerable overlaps, but they turned out to be decidedly different books. Reading them reminded me of jazz riffs, and how two musicians can improvise, and each end up in quite different places. For this reason, I can recommend reading both novels. That being said, Curiosity remains my favourite.

I had to sit down with myself for a bit to figure out why this was so. Mostly it was because Curiosity took me more deeply into the feelings, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds of the various homes and places at Lyme Regis, whereas Remarkable Creatures was a bit more like an entertaining history lesson. Not that a history lesson is not a bad thing in itself. Reading it reminded me about some of the particulars of the impediments that 19th Century women faced when it came to academic recognition. Also, Chevalier delved into the story in a way that stayed with me.

When I reread the start of Curiosity, I realized how much of my delight for that novel came from the cadence of speech. Speech patterns can be devilishly hard to get right, but when an author totally nails it, the physical delight ripples out to encompass more than just the language. I think of what Hilary Mantel pulled off when she wrote Wolf Hall, or Charles Foran when he wrote Carolan’s Farwell. As a reader in the hands of such novelists, I always appreciate how cadence increases how deeply I am plunged into each scene. In the hands of these three novelists, I was fully immersed.

In life as well as in literature, I am a sucker for humour. Give me loud and crazy, and about to come off the rails, or give me subtle and devilishly dead on, it is all no matter. Just make me laugh, or even just smile, and I am putty in your hands. The following passage is one of many in Curiosity that had me smiling before I even knew it:

Mary’s mother had worked the curiosity table until lately, and if a customer had trouble parting with his coin, she would fix a soft look on him and offer a charm against wizening. She was not bold in her manner and the gentleman would startle and wonder at her meaning. But usually he bought, after that.  

It is a tricky business when writing a novel based on real people. As my husband would say, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Fair enough. It does seem that Chevalier took a few more liberties with known historical facts, which need not be a problem – but for me, it was sometimes. In her version, Birch was portrayed as an utter cad who hadn’t paid Annie for her work and her fossils, when he definitely should have. A recent biography of Mary Anning, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World, doesn’t support this version of events. This wouldn’t be a problem except that in Chevalier’s version, there is a scene where Birch auctions off the fossils that he had got from Mary, and uses the proceeds to belatedly help out the Annings, who were in financial distress at the time. This action didn’t fit with how Birch had been portrayed earlier on, nor was there any evidence of any moral and emotional shift that could explain this change of heart. It was not a big thing, but I was left feeling a little jarred as a reader.

I am getting too old to finish books that are really not worth the candle. I mention this only because in spite of my various quibbles with Remarkable Creatures, if Chevalier’s novel had failed utterly, I would never have finished it. It didn’t fail, and I am glad that I read it to the end. Even so, it is the novel Curiosity which is the one that has stayed with me, continues to resonate, and will be the one that I will be recommending to my book club.

One addendum – my ongoing curiosity about all things Jackson. There are a few scenes in both of these novels that I continue to be curious about. They involve finding the drowned remains of a Lady Jackson, washed up on the beach at Lyme Regis. In Chevalier’s novel, Lady Jackson is given a first name: Mary. Who was this Lady “Mary” Jackson? Apparently, she was on her way home from India, expecting to dock at Southampton. Perhaps someone reading this blog post will know the answer. If you do – please let me know.

Another  interesting link for more about Mary Anning: Fossils and OtherLiving Things.


  1. I'm glad you're going to recommend Curiosity to the Book Club. As an exalted member of same, I am casting my vote in favour.
    I loved listening to the reading Joan Thomas gave at the Sechelt writer's festival and now with your endorsement, I'm convinced...

  2. Thank you for writing this review. It's given me exactly what I wanted to know as I choose which book to read first—years after you wrote this. (Curiosity)